H

omeopathy is alive and well in the United States, according to new research from Massachusetts General Hospital, and it is thriving elsewhere. A health practice with no scientific underpinning and unconvincing clinical evidence that is used by millions of people around the world amounts to a mockery of evidence-based medicine. I am part of a group of experts who want to counterbalance the misinformation on this topic.

Homeopathy is a practice that treats disease with vanishingly small — usually nonexistent — doses of substances that in larger amounts would cause the very condition that is being treated. It is used mostly to treat self-limiting conditions ranging from the common cold to allergies, insomnia, muscle strains, nausea, and the like, but alarmingly it is also promoted for serious conditions like heart disease and cancer.

Homeopathy traces its roots back to Germany with the work of physician Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700s. The country has embraced this practice from its early beginning and has supported it over the years. The Nazis, for instance, tried to prove that homeopathy worked, and postwar government officials continue to support its use. In 2013, Germans spent almost 500 million euros for homeopathic remedies! So it is both fitting and long-overdue that a new effort to debunk homeopathy should be launched from Germany.

advertisement

Our effort, called the Homeopathy Information Network, emerged from a meeting held earlier this year in Freiburg to find ways to counter the vast amount of misinformation about homeopathy. A disclaimer: This group is not funded by pharmaceutical companies. In fact, it has no funding — members donate their time and pay for their own expenses.

Why do this now? Because the evidence against homeopathy has never been more incontrovertible. A recent exhaustive evaluation of homeopathy trials by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia showed that it was effective for zero of 68 illnesses. A similar review in the United Kingdom also showed that homeopathy does not work and recommended that the National Health Service stop funding its use. It is now high time to improve health care by relegating homeopathy to the history books.

One of the network’s first fruits is the Freiburg Declaration on Homeopathy (Freiburger Erklärung zur Homöopathie). It says this:

Homeopathy is not medicine. Homeopathy is a stubbornly surviving belief system, not a scientific approach to healing. It can’t be accepted as part of naturopathy or medicine.

Homeopathy should not be given special status. During more than 200 years of existence, homeopathy hasn’t managed to demonstrate that it works any better than placebo. In the German health care system, it survives because objective proof of the effectiveness of homeopathic treatments is not required, something that is required for prescription drugs. Such a double standard should be abolished.

Self-deception by patients and therapists should be acknowledged. Homeopathic treatments may indeed ease symptoms and have other therapeutic effects. But they aren’t attributable to remedies made by dilution and superdilution. Instead, any effectiveness stems from the placebo effect and from human interactions between patient and therapist. Many practitioners and patients using homeopathy are likely unaware of the existence and power of suggestion, self-suggestion, and the placebo effect. But this does not change the fact that their conclusions about homeopathy are wrong and may be harmful.

Embrace science. The scientific method can’t explain everything. But it does let us show that homeopathy can’t be scientifically explained. A popular belief in therapeutic claims for homeopathy nourished by politicians, the media, and complementary therapy businesses shouldn’t be the justification for its use as a medical practice.

The Freiburg Declaration’s criticism of homeopathy isn’t aimed at patients who use this complementary treatment or clinicians who practice it. Instead, it is aimed at schools of homeopathy and health care organizations that should long ago have acknowledged the nonsensical nature of homeopathy but have chosen not to.

In a nutshell, the Freiburg Declaration asks the players in our science-based health care system to reject the pseudoscience of homeopathy and return to what should be self evident: promoting scientifically validated, fair, and generally reproducible top-quality medicine that truly benefits patients.

Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD is professor emeritus of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter and author of A Scientist in Wonderland and a blog focusing on alternative medicine.

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • If doctors of actual medicine were more helpful and finding out why patients are having symptoms, instead of just prescribing pain medicine, or antibiotics; maybe the public wouldn’t be so desperate to find someone who actually seems like they care. My husband was having issues with low energy and feeling crappy. Our doctor said, “what do you expect, you’re getting older”. My husband was only 46 at the time and couldn’t do half a day’s work without crashing. Turns out he was having low potassium issues caused by digestive issues.

  • Skepticism is a good thing, but homeopathy has helped me or someone in my family tremendously. Herd are three instances: 1. Daughter suffering from migraines so severe, that we once had to take her to the hospital. Then I learned about Tilia Tomentosa, and her migraines stopped; 2. Young daughter reacted so badly to mosquito bites that she’d develop hard, large lumps afterward. Once gave her Apis Mellifica right after a bite, and the swelling went down completely within 20 minutes; 3. I developed something called “trigger thumb.” I couldn’t bend or use my thumb for weeks. My terrific doctor said I’d need a steroid injection, which can further injure you and suppress the immune system. I was about to schedule the injection, but with nothing to lose, I began taking Arnuca and Rita Graveolos several times a day. I hadn’t been out of pain or able to move my thumb in weeks, but by the very next day, my thumb was pain-free! I couldn’t believe it, so the skeptic in me waited for several days before I cancelled the injection. But cancel I did, as my thumb regained its full range of motion. Say what you want, but in my experience, it seems to be a valid option in some situations.

    • There are many anecdotes like this. There are not independently authenticated cases where homeopathy has been objectively proven to have cured anybody of anything, ever. The explanation is simple: humans are terribly inclined to draw false inferences.

  • What Guy misinterpreted from my remarks is that they are not an attempt to make a case for homeopathy but rather call into question an indictment from the arrogant, grossly overpriced, low results American health care system. We spend the most but are far down the list in quality of care. Medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death, and with a share of notable exceptions the “cures” are few and far between. In fact the largest percentage of illnesses run their own course regardless of the high priced interventions of drug pushing doctors. If you are sick you have a right to fear your doctor could make things worse as he bends over backwards to get his drug company kickback from the latest $200 prescription with a list of side effects longer then Shaquille O’Neal’s arm. In many cases you would be better served with a homeopathic placebo, or no treatment at all. Too often people who get caught up in the “reality” based American health care system come away with a harsh dose of that reality indeed. Assuming you come away at all.
    BTW… based on first hand experience, I would recommend that you never leave a helpless loved one alone in an American hospital.

  • The popularity of homeopathic medicine can be directly traced back to the poor results most people get from the current “treat the symptom not the underlying cause” philosophy of western medical providers. Further, we view the collusive relationship between doctors and profiteering drug makers with trepidation, and recognize the ridiculously unsustainable cost of insurance and medical care as a deadly threat to the economic future of our country. Just about anything else, including homeopathy, looks good in comparison.

    • There are two major problems with your statement.

      The first is that homeopathy does not treat the cause of anything, and medicine very often does treat the cause. For example, antomicrobials treat the cause of infection by killing the bacteria that are its cause. And that’s before we even get into genetic therapies.

      Second, the popularity of homeopathy can be directly traced to the *success* of reality-based medicine. In the early days of antibiotics nobody needed to be sold on the idea of a wonder drug, because previously fatal infections were suddenly not fatal any more. Homeopathy is most successful among the “worried well”, people whose major diseases are cured or the symptoms abated by reality-based medicine but who still feel lingering dissatisfaction.

      The problem of course is that a small subset of people become True Believers and then rely on homeopathy instead of reality-based medicine when they become genuinely ill. And the results can be utterly horrific, as in the case of Penelope Dingle, who died in agony because a homeopath persuaded her that she could cure cancer.

      Homeopathy is not medicine. If homeopaths could restrict themselves to the fudge of claiming symptomatic relief of minor self-limiting ailments then it would arguably be less of a problem, but they won’t, they continue to insist, despite a mountain of evidence that they are wrong and absolutely no credible evidence they are right, that homeopathy is a powerful form of medical treatment, rather than what it actually is: confectionery.

  • Well know – I think this chap will find that ‘homeopathy’ as he is calling it goes back way further than the ruddy 1700s. What kept generations of people alive were plants and their therapeutic uses. It wasn’t until the 1500s when emerging physician colleges began to synthesise medicines, and also making the natural use of plant based remedies virtually illegal,that our medicine based culture began. Does it work? Sometimes. Does it fail? Sometimes. Does main stream medicine work? Not always. Does it fail? Yes, sometimes. I have used a mixture of both but increasingly turning back towards natures gifts as more and more harmful chemicals are added to mainstream medicines. So it is spurious to decry it as quackery just because you happen to have studied scientific medicine and have a doctors certificate. Essential oils are a valid and working part of this household and are used for everything fromstomach upsets, colds, flu, burns, cuts,infections and things such as cystitis. Herbal medicines are as old as time itself – its all they had to stay alive and herbalism also shouldn’t be decried.

    • Homeopathy and herbalism are unrelated. This much is obvious from even a cursory reading of Hahnemann’s work. Homeopathy was invented by Hanhnemann from whole cloth: the combination of the doctrine of sympathetic magic with serial dilution to the point of non-existence was entirely novel and this is what defines homeopathy.

      It’s also completely wrong, in a way that herbalism is not.

  • By “top quality medicines” do you mean the ones with a list of 5-15 harmful side effects? The choice between sickening side effects and placebo is an easy one.

    • There is a delicious irony in your comment.

      While it is true that anything that has an effect, will gave potential side-effects, when a medicine is under test, every symptom experienced by the trial patients gets listed as a possible side-effect, even though many are entirely unrelated to the medicine.

      This is exactly how homeopathic “provings” work. People take a substance -usually unblinded – and their entire rambling discourse of unconnected symptoms is then listed as potential indications, even though most are symptoms of life and few, if any, are plausibly related to the nostrum under test.

      Hence the first main criticism of homeopathy: there is no reason to soppise it should work, as like does not, in fact, cure like, and in most cases the nostrums have absolutely no connection with the cause of any symptoms.

Recommended Stories

Sign up for our biotech newsletter, The Readout

A guide to what’s new in biotech — delivered straight to your inbox every weekday morning.