You can take them to water

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.

Matilda Whitworth

Matilda Whitworth is a final year medical student who would like to combine a career in writing and community medicine. She has previously written for the Big Issue magazine about her work with Perth's homeless population.

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  1. Perfectly said Matilda! Homeopathy is not only downright ridiculous, but can be dangerous when used in place of evidence-based treatments – especially in the case of vaccines. The public needs to know how to protect themselves from commerce-driven quackery, thanks for getting this out into the public forum.

  2. I can not agree with you more Matilda. I have been a doctor for over twenty years and it is worrying the numbers of people who are choosing not to vaccinate their children. Hence at the coal face, that is general practice, we are seeing an increasing number of people returning from overseas with diseases such as measles. It is only a matter of time before illnesses that the community have largely forgotten about, such as polio, reemerge as a major public health issue. I agree that patients are being misled by false claims about homeopathic vaccine efficacy.

  3. The thing that bugs me is that, while doctors are seen as cogs in the greedy medical industrial complex, homeopathy/ vitamins are seen as being made by someone who cares. The irony!! Those big companies use their slick capitalist marketing strategies to rake in $$ unchecked. There’s no need for evidence to get in the way of a good advertisement. Look at blackmores new personalised wellness ad. But, in avoiding taking on the areas where health is hard, where it has to work, they keep their golden laurels in the public eye. It’s all capitalism and greed, but you might as well give your money to something that works!!!

  4. Hi Matilda, I have a few patients who refuse to immunize. It will be a sad day when one of their children contracts a vaccine preventable disease. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult when faced with patients who are extremely fixed in their ideas to get them to understand that immunizations are administered because of evidence based medicine.

  5. Thanks everyone for your lovely responses. Always glad to see I’m not the only one who feels this way!

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