Health experts dismiss homeopathy

There is no evidence that the controversial treatment is any better than a placebo, a review of the medical research has found. Tim Dean reports.

Homeopathic pills like these are often so dilute that they contain no trace of the active ingredient. – Getty Images

There is no evidence that homeopathy works. That is the conclusion of a comprehensive review of the scientific data in a draft report released this week by Australia’s peak medical research body, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Homeopathy is based on the notion that “like cures like” as promoted by figures such as the 16th century physician Paracelsus. This principle suggests a substance that causes illness in a healthy individual can treat the same symptoms when applied in very small doses to a sick individual.

However, studies have found that homeopathic formulations are often so dilute that they contain no trace of the original active ingredient.

“In some cases homeopathic medicines are unlikely to contain even a single molecule of starting material. This makes homeopathy extremely implausible, and the Australian NHMRC report is the latest in a long line of studies that could find no evidence of efficacy,” said Ian Musgrave from the faculty of medicine at the University of Adelaide.

The NHMRC report concurs with the findings of other evidence-based studies commissioned by governments overseas. In 2010 the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee found that homeopathy was based on scientifically implausible principles and homeopathic treatments performed no better than placebos.

The US National Institutes of Health has also found that key concepts in homeopathy are “inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics” and there is little evidence supporting the efficacy of homeopathic remedies.

'The government should see that homeopathy no longer
penetrates our health care system.'

Yet Australians are estimated to spend around $7.5 million on homeopathy treatments each year, according to the World Health Organization. Some homeopathic therapies are also listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic goods, and the government currently provides a 30 per cent tax rebate to private health insurers on some non-conventional or "complementary" therapies such as homeopathy.

The NHMRC draft report was welcomed by John Dwyer, emeritus immunologist at the University of New South Wales and president of Friends of Science in Medicine, who says it should encourage the government to cease subsidising homeopathic therapies.

“We’re all worried about legitimate expenditure within the health system, such as trying to find enough dollars for hospitals and primary care, and there’s an awful lot of money wasted on unscientific medicine like homeopathy in this most scientific of all ages,” he said. “The government should be utilising this information from their peak scientific body to help see that homeopathy no longer penetrates our health care system.”

Dwyer was also critical of government funding going to educational institutions that teach homeopathy, and of pharmacists who stock homeopathic remedies despite their role as scientifically trained health professionals.

“Homeopathic preparations should not be available in our pharmacies, no private health insurer should provide any rebate for homeopathy and those few universities that lower our scientific standards by providing credibility for homeopathy in their health courses should cease doing so immediately,” he said.

'There is insufficient evidence in the form of systematic
reviews to prove homoeopathy’s efficacy.'

While the NHMRC report was welcomed by many in the medical science community, the Australian Homeopathic Association (AHA) questioned what, in its view, were unduly restrictive standards of evidence employed in the report.

“This review has focused exclusively on recent systematic trials,” it said in a press release.

The NHMRC did indeed set the bar high for what would considered evidence for efficacy, stating that “not all evidence has equal value”. It explicitly ruled out anecdote and observational studies “including individual experiences and testimonials, case series and reports”. The AHA made a number of submissions of this type to the enquiry.

The AHA also contrasted the findings of the NHMRC draft report with those from a 2012 Swiss study – which the AHA mistakenly attributes to the Swiss government. This study found homeopathy to be both clinically useful and cost effective using a lower standard of evidence.

However, that study has been criticised as being “scientifically, logically and ethically flawed” in the peer-reviewed journal Swiss Medical Weekly, and the Swiss government has distanced itself from any association with it.

The NHMRC draft paper is open for public comment until 26 May 2014 and will be finalised once all public submissions have been considered.

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