An age-old argument has broken out again with the British National Health Service (NHS) coming close to a decision to stop providing homeopathic medicines. It appears that a macro-analysis of a number of large-scale controlled trials has shown that they have no significant effect. At the same time, it is acknowledged that a number of homeopathic hospitals were incorporated into the NHS at its founding in 1948 and homeopathy has always been part of its practice. Advocates of this ‘alternative medicine’ point out that current expenditure is only about £4 million per annum, a very small part of the overall NHS budget of over £100 billion, and replacing homeopathic drugs with allopathic alternatives would cost much more.
The basic principle of homeopathy is that a substance that can provoke a symptom in a healthy person can suppress that same symptom in a person who is unwell. The substance in question is prepared in aqueous solution and then diluted ten times in a process known as titration. Repeated titrations reduce the concentration of the active agent to levels that are almost impossible to detect by chemical analysis. Conventional doctors assert that these levels of concentration have no biochemical effect, but homeopathic practitioners maintains that the repeated titrations enhance the effectiveness.
The proponents of homeopathy share the great enthusiasm for their practice that is found with all practitioners of alternative medical systems, from acupuncture to hypnosis. Their arguments are persuasive and many ordinary people are willing to be persuaded. However, when challenged for scientific evidence of effectiveness most resort to anecdotes of specific spectacular successes, and data from controlled trials of large numbers of people are never instanced. Another troubling feature of alternative medical systems is that their advocates tend to support one another, accepting each other’s anecdotal evidence. The lay person must ask, can they all be right?
Alternative medicines have a long history and their proponents assert that this proves their effectiveness; if they didn’t work, would they continue to be practised? However, research has shown that about ninety percent of all afflictions are cleared up in a few days by the human body’s own defence mechanism, so it is inevitable that any doctor can claim a high success rate, even if he has never studied medicine. This is the reason why so many so-called quacks often practice for a number of years before they are detected. Medical systems must be judged on the small percentage of cases that are otherwise incurable and here conventional practice has an established record of ever-advancing statistically significant success.
It has been shown repeatedly that even distilled water has a beneficial effect in suppressing symptoms. This ‘placebo effect’ must be carefully ruled out in controlled trials by not telling participants if they are receiving the placebo or the active substance. When the persuasive power of a sympathetic and enthusiastic practitioner is added to a placebo, no doubt good results can be realised, but is homeopathy any more than this?