Homeopathy began in the 18th century with a German doctor called Samuel Hahnemann. Peeved that medical treatments, such as blood letting, were not as kind to patients as they might be, he began the search for alternatives. He struck oncinchona bark. The Peruvian plant product was taken as a remedy for malaria, but how it worked was a mystery. Fit and healthy, Hahnemann took some and noticed he broke out in fever. He reasoned that what caused fever cured fever. From that sole experience he established one of the central tenets of homeopathy: that like cures like.
Nature has been humanity’s greatest source of medicines and cinchona was soon to join them. Scientists established that whatever eating the bark might do to the body, it was the quinine in the plant matter that was antimalarial. However, Hahnemann stuck to his guns, and he went on to reach a second conviction, that preparations are more potent the more they are diluted. The popularity of homeopathy rocketed in the early 19th century, with the first dedicated hospital opening in 1832.
Scientific, and unscientific, studies abound on homeopathy. To date, there is no convincing evidence that like cures like; that water retains a memory of the molecules it once held, as practitioners maintain; or that extreme dilutions of substances have pharmaceutical effects. What studies do show is that homeopathic preparations, and a good chat with someone who emphathises with their patients, can induce a placebo response that makes some people feel better.
Individual studies rarely count for much in medicine. They need to be replicated before they are believed. With this in mind, the Cochrane collaboration assesses medical interventions after pooling results from the highest quality studies published. Since 2008, the organisation has carried out a series of studies which found no good evidence that homeopathy helps flu, chronic asthma, dementia, irritable bowel syndrome, or the induction of labour. They found hints that homeopathy might help some specific skin complaints caused by radiotherapy and chemotherapy for cancer, but said that trials needed repeating to confirm any benefit.
In 2010, the Commons science and technology committee published a reporton homeopathy and its provision on the National Health Service. It had little time for the central pillars of homeopathy, that like cured like, or that ultra-dilutions retained an imprint of substances previously dissolved in them, calling the latter claim “scientifically implausible”. The report went on to state that there was overwhelming evidence that homeopathic preparations performed no better than placebos.
The report was even more critical of homeopathy being funded by the taxpayer through the NHS, and called on government to cut its support. Providing homeopathy on the NHS damaged trust between patients and doctor, gave patients false assurance by endorsing homeopathy, and contradicted the NHS constitution, which says people have the right to expect that decisions made on drugs and treatments are based on “proper consideration of the evidence”.
Sugar pills and other homeopathic preparations contain so little that side effects are surely minimal. But homeopathy is not without risks. In 2012, Edzard Ernst, the UK’s outspoken critic of alternative medicines, published a review of harmful effects arising from the use of homeopathic preparations. The study found 1159 patients ran into problems. Four died. Often taking homeopathy had delayed their treatment with effective medicines, or meant they were never given.
In his book, Trick or Treatment, co-authored with the science writer Simon Singh, Ernst recounts the case of a homeopath who was collaborating with his research team while treating herself for cancer with homeopathy. She died, he believes, because she did not have proper treatment in time. Other patients in Ernst’s study came to harm after experiencing allergic reactions to the preparations they took.
The latest report to write off homeopathy is published by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council. After an extensive review, it found that “there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective”. It went further, adding that homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or that could become serious, and warned that people who used the preparations could put their health at risk, by rejecting or delaying more effective medicines. In short, it echoes what the Cochrane collaboration, and the Commons science and technology committee, have already said.