My first experience with a homeopathy advocate was during a clinical skills class in my first year of medicine. A volunteer patient had attended with her baby so that we could practice taking a paediatric history with our newly acquired history taking skills. Unused to talking to ‘real patients’, we went around the circle with each of us nervously asking the mother a different part of the protocol.
‘Were there any complications during birth?’
‘Does your baby have any medical conditions?’
‘Is your baby meeting all of its developmental milestones?’
Everything was going fine and the mood had somewhat relaxed. That is, until the following question was asked. ‘Is your baby up to date with all its vaccinations?’ The response to this seemingly innocuous question was met with an awkward silence. ‘We don’t believe in traditional vaccinations. My baby has had homeopathic ones instead.’
Although I often find it difficult to do so, I try to be as open-minded as possible when it comes to alternative and complementary therapies. If a cancer patient wants to combine juice therapy alongside their regular chemotherapy, then that’s fine with me. I don’t believe at all that the juice will cure their cancer, but it is cheap and healthy, and if it makes them feel good then who am I to judge?
But no matter how much I try to be open-minded, there are some practices that will never sit right with me. At the top the list is homeopathy, just edging out a yoga pose I learned in India that reportedly cures diabetes. Homeopathy is the belief that ‘like cures like’, or in other words, substances that produce unwanted symptoms can (if heavily diluted) also be used to cure them.
The thing that angers me most about homeopathy is not that the principle behind it makes no sense, but that many purveyors of homeopathy believe (or pretend) that homeopathy is based on science. There are homeopathic institutes worldwide with fancy buildings and slick websites claiming to do ‘high-quality scientific research’. In Australia, homeopathic remedies are often stocked in pharmacies where they masquerade as medicine, and there are private health insurers offering rebates for homeopathic treatments. There are even taxpayer funded homeopathic training courses accredited by the government’s Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TESQUA), giving the subject credibility it does not deserve. These deliberate misrepresentations fool people into buying expensive but ineffective concoctions of predominantly water or alcohol, something I believe is unforgivable.
I’m therefore immensely pleased, and not at all surprised, by the announcement from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) that homeopathy is no more effective than placebos for treating any medical condition. That conclusion was reached after this top medical research body undertook a systematic review of 225 research papers on the topic, discarding any study that was too small or of low quality. The NHMRC also made a public statement that ‘people who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness’. This study is a big win for evidence-based medicine, the practice whereby a treatment is only used for the care of patients if there are rigorous scientific trials supporting it. This is the sort of medicine we learn about at medical school.
I don’t believe that this announcement will sway any of the homeopathic bigwigs (the study has already been labeled ‘biased’ by the Australian Homeopathic Association), but my hope is that someone sitting on the fence might be persuaded that homeopathy isn’t as effective as the advocates claim. Or that companies will reconsider stocking or subsidising these ineffective ‘remedies’. That would be something to celebrate, perhaps with a Mitchell and Webb homeopathic lager.