Homeopathy and misplaced confidence

homeopathyThe poet WB Yates wrote, ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. Some dreams are just that and a little light treading might be in order.

Homeopathy is a system of treatment based on the principle of stimulating healing by administering ultra dilute solutions. In practice the active ingredients of homeopathic remedies are measured in parts per million. A sceptic might say the treatment is not much different from water.

Conventional medicine is known as allopathic. Allopathic treatment is associated with well known problems: side effects, interactions, cost, and for some people, the unnaturalness, are all downsides. The cure can be worse than the disease. Doctors experienced in allopathic treatment live with these concerns.

Finding the right type of medicine is a personal thing. A person who is feeling a bit under the weather and in need of something to make them feel better will make different decisions to a person who needs contraception or has an infection.

Even the most passionate proponents of ‘natural remedies’ will take conventional treatment if it is recommended by a person, usually a doctor, in whom they have confidence. People are able to make sound judgements about what is proportionate and appropriate. They may choose to try a bit of ginseng for a bit of an ache but would take some of the most toxic substances known to man to treat some cancers. Right minded people know how to opt for the best treatment.

Homeopathic treatments are non toxic. A person taking homeopathic treatment is not being harmed by what they take. Not all natural remedies are harmless, some of them, such a St John’s Wort, are potentially poisonous. In the case of St John’s Wort it can cause liver damage.

Misplaced confidence

Problems arise only when people place confidence in the homeopathic system to the extent they use it in the wrong situation. There are rare cases of people ignoring serious symptoms because they trusted to the curative power of homoeopathy and some very rare incidences of people with serious illness who deny themselves effective treatment in favour of something homeopathic. There are some cases where the epitaph “I trusted homeopathy” would be fitting.

The debate about the place of homeopathy is polarised. Most Western doctors are fanatically opposed to it. They spend years training and working out what can be relied upon to be effective. It offends their sense of propriety when they hear homoeopathy being promoted, where in their world of quantifiable outcomes, the figures just don’t add up.

Doctors, even though they are occasionally maligned for being single minded in their approach, have data to fall back on. They know what works in most people most of the time. They often hate the idea of people they regard as no more than charlatans making a living from selling treatments the efficacy of which is an article of faith.

The new Conservative/Lib-Dem government, concerned with cutting costs, has come out in favour of continuing to fund a limited amount of homeopathy on the NHS. A cynic might say the politicians have a better grasp of what people vote for than their doctors. Doctors, by and large, are hopping mad about it.

– Dr Tony Steele (August 2010)

Further reading