Views & Reviews From the Frontline

Good medicine: homeopathy

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e6184 (Published 14 September 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6184
  1. Des Spence, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. destwo{at}yahoo.co.uk

It was an intentional overdose. To prove a point I poured about 30 tiny tablets into my mouth and crunched them down. Because scientifically, I do not believe that these homeopathic pills have any active ingredient.

Today, homeopathy is medicine’s whipping boy, repeatedly and systematically beaten to the ground. Yet despite explaining that the tablets are just placebos, homeopathy always gets up to take another beating. Some homeopathy is funded by the NHS, through general practice, and in the few homeopathic hospitals. This fact enrages the growling commissars of evidenced based medicine who want homeopathy purged from the NHS.

So does homeopathy work? This depends what you measure. Does it cure infection, degenerative conditions, and cancer? It most certainly does not. And if any such claims are made they must be vigorously denounced. But homeopathy is most commonly used for medically unexplained symptoms in patients dismissed as neurotic; the so called “worried well.” These patients have passed from specialist to specialist, enduring repeated invasive and needless negative investigations. Or homeopathy is used in addition to, but not instead of, conventional treatments.

The homeopathic doctors I know are caring people, disillusioned with the crudeness of conventional medicine, not your typical aggressive alpha medical type. They are not in the pay of big pharma, whose drugs potentially kill 100 000 people a year in the United States alone.1 They listen, spend time, and offer some explanation for the unexplainable—and their patients like them. The effect of homeopathy is the positive effect of a therapeutic relationship that is reassuring, accepting, and supportive. Society should never underestimate the healing effect of a kind word or the value of a holistic approach. These consultations genuinely improve wellbeing. Homeopathic pills are placebos, but the placebo response is great, maybe even as high as 80%.

There is no hard evidence for homeopathy. But likewise the more you understand of research evidence the more you understand it is mere modern marketing quackery. There may be some dangerous homeopathic charlatans, but there are plenty in mainstream medicine too. We need to accept that patients will still use homeopathy, and having access to it through the NHS means it is regulated and safe. As for the cost to the NHS, this is roughly the same as a single week of antidepressants,2 3 medications that are little better than placebo.4 Modern medicine has real capacity to do harm but often minimal good; homeopathy has minimal capacity to do harm but real capacity to do good. Homeopathy is an easy target; we would be better to focus on the failings of conventional medicine. Homeopathy is bad science but good medicine.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6184

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