On Homeopathy Awareness

Did you hear about the homeopathy patient who died of an overdose?

He forgot to take his medicine.

M’friend Charles pointed out (on Facebook) that ‘World Homeopathy Awareness Week’ is coming up. He wants to raise awareness by saying that homeopathy doesn’t work. I’m not sure that’s exactly true: homeopathy does work.

No, sit down and listen. Homeopathy helps people who have a self-limiting condition (such as a cold) feel like they’re doing something to get better, and hey! they get better. So in that sense yes; homeopathy helps hypochondriacs get better. And there’s a placebo effect too; people believe they’re getting better because they’ve taken something for their headache (although why homeopathy preparations for headaches say ‘for severe headaches take two’ is beyond me). The beneficial effect of a good ‘bedside’ manner is not in dispute, and homeopathic charlatans practitioners have got that down pat. I wish our real physicians would learn from that.

Homeopathy of course is utterly useless when it comes to things like, oh I don’t know, setting a broken leg, breast cancer or preventing malaria. Or eczema. In other words where there is actual physical trauma or a causative agent. Where homeopathy is dangerous is when people use homeopathy instead of proven and effective remedies–medicine, in other words.

Homeopathy kills. That’s an interesting google search, by the way. And if you type ‘homeopathy kills breast cancer’ you get hits saying that homeopathy kills cancer cells, which hurts my brain so much I think I might have to go and lie down. (The big secret is that just about everything kills cancer cells sooner or later, especially in culture.)

Homeopathy kills because people will go to a homeopath instead of a real doctor, and get water instead of something that actually works:

Isabella was prescribed medications for her epilepsy. Instead of using them, her parents consulted an iridologist, an applied kinesiologist, a psychic and an osteopath. She was being treated purely with homeopathic medication when she died.

Isabella was 13 months old.

World Homeopathy Awareness Week: April 10th-16th 2010. Beware the danger.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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23 Responses to On Homeopathy Awareness

  1. Brian Clegg says:

    Richard – I think homeopathy is rubbish and do everything I can to encourage people to avoid it. So my comment isn’t about homeopathy per se.
    However, I do think in attacking homeopathy, we have to be very careful about how we phrase the attack. Specifically, when you say ‘people believe they’re getting better because they’ve taken something for their headache’, this is not the placebo effect. In the placebo effect people actually do get better. It is a physiological effect (e.g. production of endorphins resulting in pain reduction), not a belief that something has happened. But, of course, the placebo effect can only make a very limited range of things better, e.g. in pain reduction, it can’t have any beneficial effect on anything from cancer to malaria.
    Sorry to be so heavy handed, but I want to make it clear that I absolutely accept that homeopathy has no effects other than the imagination and the placebo effect, and it shouldn’t be sold as an effective remedy. However we do need to be clear about the way we attack it.

  2. Richard P. Grant says:

    Well, that’s debatable I think. Essentially nobody knows why the placebo effect works. I think what I describe is the placebo effect: people believe in the power of whateveritis and they do get better. That’s not in dispute, I think.
    I am drawing the distinction between placebo, whatever the mechanism, and self-limiting conditions where h/pathy has no effect at all, placebo or otherwise.

  3. Eva Amsen says:

    I’ve also heard a lot of people use the word”homeopathy” to mean “natural” or “herbal”, and I think a lot of the commotion comes from a miscommunication. We know the concept of homepathy as “extremely diluted solution” but a lot of people also consider herbal medicine a “form of homeopathy”. The first time I heard a professor speak out against homeopathy in undergrad I was confused about what he meant. Surely some herbs contained active chemicals?
    And recently I saw someone on Facebook refer to a general physiological reaction of the body to extreme heat or cold as “a homeopathic thing” used in some therapy or another.
    That there are different categories (and levels of usefulness!) in forms of alternative treatment is something that isn’t as widespread a concept for people who aren’t submerged in it. Occasional users of herbal medicine (with actual ingredients) will probably not know the difference between that and homeopathic medicine.

  4. Richard P. Grant says:

    Indeed, Eva.
    Herbal remedies can correctly be called ‘medicine’ (not ‘alternative’, please) if they have a pharmacological effect.
    And acupuncture actually does something (those dirty great big needles are doing something, even if the benefit is ‘only’ due to the placebo effect).
    Homeopathy: there’s nothing in it. Which is why it’s dangerous.

  5. Ken Doyle says:

    Now, now, shirley that’s not true. There’s sugar, water, and sometimes even a little alcohol. I likes my sugar and alcohol, my precioussss, I does.

  6. Austin Elliott says:

    Of course, “…extremely diluted solution” is one of the problems about the way homeopathy tends to be presented, since the phrase, though accurate in one sense (i.e. the solutions are repeatedly and ritually diluted), is misleading in another. What it should really say is:

    “…solution so dilute that there isn’t even a single molecule of the “remedy” remaining.”

    It is the failure to include this that makes me so annoyed about many media stories on homeopathy, because by using the phrase the homeopaths prefer they are actually accomplices to the way the homeopaths routinely mislead people.
    As some here will know, I’ve written more about homeopathy in the blogosphere than about practically any other single subject, except perhaps anti-vaccine craziness. In fact, I’ve even impersonated a homeopath a few times to show students how easy it is to “spin” homeopathy if you are a bit selective (or devious, if you prefer) about what you show and tell them. Anyway, I have to say that I am pretty bored with homeopathy (I notice my friend David Colquhoun feels the same), but I may have to rouse myself to have another dig at them for Homeopathy Awareness Week.
    PS In my experience Eva is quite right that most non-scientific people – including users – think “homeopathy” means the same as “herbal”.

  7. Heather Etchevers says:

    Just a comment about this:
    “(The big secret is that just about everything kills cancer cells sooner or later, especially in culture.)”
    The other thing is, when the host dies, generally the cancer cells end up dying too. If you take the long view, therefore, homeopathy can kill cancer cells.

  8. Julie Ghosh says:

    “The other thing is, when the host dies, generally the cancer cells end up dying too. If you take the long view, therefore, homeopathy can kill cancer cells.”
    That’s not gonna help the poor Tasmanian devils.
    Most cells in culture are kind of like pet goldfish: extremely easy to kill accidentally; very hard to kill by intentional neglect.
    I’m going to be spreading your opening joke, rpg.

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    Feel free, Julie 🙂
    And yes, I’ve been amazed at how cells can survive not being fed for a couple of weeks but look at them funny and… poof.

  10. Nathaniel Marshall says:

    There is a downside to your argument though, Richard.
    It requires clinicians to lie through their teeth to their patients because placebos work better when they are sold harder or cost more. Then you get caught in an informed consent tangle. And that’s not mentioning the fraud aspect.

  11. Nat, I’m not arguing that clinicians should lie, or prescribe placebo instead of something else. Just saying that they could perhaps treat patients as people rather than problems to be solved.
    And damn, what’s happened to my linebreaks? The appropriate formatting options have gone AWOL.

  12. Cath Ennis says:

    Does anyone remember a comedy sketch show called “Smack the Pony?” They had a hilarious placebo sketch that I have looked for several times with the goal of adding it to a comment thread of this nature, but I can’t find it on YouTube or anywhere else.
    Basically, a patient describes a vague condition to a doctor, who says, “right. What I’m going to do here is prescribe you a placebo”.
    Patient: “but don’t placebos only work if you don’t know it’s a placebo?”
    There’s also one of a vet who doesn’t know what a tortoise is, and tries to examine it using a can opener. Good stuff!

  13. Austin Elliott says:

    I’ve definitely seen that particular StP sketch on Youtube, Cath, but I can’t seem to track it down right this minute.

  14. Nathaniel Marshall says:

    I’d just rather not call being nice to people ‘medicine’. It should just be part of being a decent human being rather than having to give it some sort of therapeutic angle?

  15. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the heads up Richard.
    Though there’s a typo in your title. This 200 year old nonsense is actually spelled h-o-m-e-o-b-o-l-l-o-c-k-s.

  16. Richard P. Grant says:

    I’d just rather not call being nice to people ‘medicine’. It should just be part of being a decent human being rather than having to give it some sort of therapeutic angle?
    but that implies that most clinicians are ‘decent human being’s while they do their day job.
    You’re right, it should be.

  17. Nicolas Fanget says:

    I agree that good bedside manner would improve greatly the perception of how one is treated. However, I think we have to take into account the stress under which medical practitioners are. I know a registrar that regularly does 10-12 day weeks, and that includes several 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. shifts!
    I know I would get grumpy under that routine! In fact, I am grumpy with much less, thankfully I only need good keyboard manners in my job…

  18. murr brewster says:

    My friend has a cache of exorbitant Essential Oils which are particularly effective for, well, everything, especially when dropped “through the air at least six inches away” from the spine and then gently rubbed in. My, but she smells nice.

  19. Richard P. Grant says:

    Hah! Well, I guess they’re good for something then.
    Odd guest post at the Thunderer yesterday, In defence of homeobollocks.

  20. Ian Brooks says:

    I reading lots about electronic medical records and overhaul of medical practice for a grant I’m writing. They make much ado over General Practitioners only getting about 15min/patient. Most freshly minted MDs don’t become GPs… with only 15min there’s no time to provide the holistic approach to prescriptive and proscriptive care (let alone managed care plans etc.)

  21. Richard P. Grant says:

    Hmm, that’s symptomatic of another problem. Newly-minted docs, at least in the UK, usually only become GPs if they either have a real ‘heart’ or calling for general practice, or if they’re so crap they can’t make it in a specialty.
    The consequences for general practice—the frontline of healthcare—are left as an exercise, &c.

  22. Austin Elliott says:

    The notional appointment time in NHS General Practise is 10 minutes, not 15. There is an idea that if someone clearly needs extra time they should get a double appointment.
    Re. “Who becomes GPs”, GP in the UK hasn’t been the “Cinderella” it has in the US, mainly as UK GPs are well paid (by international standards) and UK hospital doctors don’t make what US hospital doctors in the big-earning specialties do.
    GP in the UK used to attract a fair number of “Eventually decided after a few yrs in hospital medicine not to do it permanently for having-a-life related reasons” people. For obvious reasons this group included quite a lot of woman doctors.
    With the glut of grads from the UK medical schools it is now actually quite difficult to get into GP Training. GP is attractive in some ways as you are considered “fully trained” by about 4-5 years post-degree – as opposed to hospital consultant training, which takes longer.

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