Homeopathy 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.
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.