Homeopathy can reduce the symptoms of disease, but it is the consultations not the remedies which are responsible, a new study has found.
Sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis who visited a homeopathic doctor experienced significant reductions in pain, inflammation and other key markers of the disease, the research shows.
Yet it made no difference whether the solution they received was a genuine homeopathic tincture prescribed to treat rheumatism, or a placebo.
The research, published today in the journal Rheumatology compared different groups of patients, who were already being given conventional medication for the disease.
Those who had a series of five consultations with a homeopathic doctor experienced “significant clinical benefits,” - whether the tincture they received was a specially prepared “homeopathic” remedy used to treat rheumatism, or a placebo.
Patients given exactly the same remedies without the consultations did not gain the improvements.
The study’s authors said the findings suggested that simply “talking and listening” to patients could dramatically assist their health.
Prof George Lewith, Professor of Health Research from Southampton University, said: “This research asked the question: 'Is homeopathy about the talking, or is it about the medicine?’ We found it was about the talking, and indeed about the listening.”
Homeopathy is based on a theory that substances which cause symptoms in a healthy person can, when vastly diluted, cure the same problems in a sick person. Proponents say the resulting “remedy” retains a “memory” of the original ingredient – a concept dismissed by scientists.
While the study suggested the remedies itself had no benefit, conventional medics should learn from the way homeopaths treated their patients, said Prof Lewith, a reader in the University’s Complementary Medicine Research Unit
“When you place the patient at the heart of the consultation you get a powerful effect. I think there are a lot of lessons here for conventional medics about the need for patient-centred care, instead of treating people as walking diseases.”
Dr Sarah Brien, the study’s lead author, said that while previous research had suggested homeopathy could help patients with rheumatoid arthritis, the study provided the first scientific evidence to show such benefits were “specifically due to its unique consultation process”.
Homeopathy will not be banned by NHS despite critical report See page 33
By Richard Alleyne, July 26, 2010
Homeopathy will continue to be available on the NHS despite an influential health committee condemning it as medically unproven.
Health minister Anne Milton said complementary and alternative medicine "has a long tradition" and very vocal people both in favour of it and against it.
A report by a group of MPs said homeopathic medicine should no longer be funded on the NHS and called for a ban on the medicines carrying medical claims on their labels.
The Commons Science and Technology Committee said there is no evidence the drugs are any more effective than a placebo - the same as taking a sugar or dummy pill and believing it works.
Last month, doctors attending the British Medical Association (BMA) annual conference backed this view, saying homeopathic remedies should be banned on the NHS and taken off pharmacy shelves where they are sold as medicines.
The treatment was described as "nonsense on stilts" and that patients would be better off buying bottled water.
Ms Milton said the Government welcomed the MPs' report but "remain of the view that the local National Health Service and clinicians are best placed to make decisions on what treatment is appropriate for their patients".
These decisions should take account of safety, and clinical and cost effectiveness, she said, adding that the Government remained committed to providing good-quality information on the treatments.
Homeopathy, which dates back 200-years, has been funded on the NHS since the service's inception in 1948.
It differs from herbal medicine in that it relies on substances being diluted many times, something the MPs said could not be scientifically proved to work.
There are four homeopathic hospitals in the UK, in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow.
Estimates on how much the NHS spends on homeopathy vary, with the Society of Homeopaths putting the figure at £4 million a year including the cost of running hospitals.
Former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, who was a member of the Science and Technology Committee when it published its report, said: "This is not a good start for the new Health Secretary when it comes to evidence-based policy.
"How does the Government justify allowing treatments that do not work to be provided by the NHS in the name of choice, when it allows medicines which do work to be banned from NHS use?"
Homeopathy still being funded on NHS See page 33
By Stephen Adams, Medical Correspondent, February 18, 2011
Homeopathy - described as nothing more than "sugar pill medicine" by its detractors - is still being widely funded on the NHS, a survey shows today.
A third of primary care trusts in England are still funding the alternative medicine, according to the poll by the magazine GP. It asked all of England's 151 PCTs if they funded homeopathy using Freedom of Information Act requests. Of the 104 that responded, 32 said they did still fund it.
Ten PCTs said they had ceased funding because there was no strong evidence that it was effective.
Those health authorities that are still funding it are doing so despite a plea by the British Medical Association (BMA) for no more NHS money to be spent on homeopathy.
Last February the House of Commons' science and technology committee advised that NHS funding should be stopped, saying there was a "mismatch" between evidence that it worked and government policy. However, in July the Coalition said homeopathy would continue to be funded, with PCTs responsible for making decisions locally.
According to the Society of Homeopaths, "Homeopathy is a system of medicine which is based on treating the individual with highly diluted substances given in mainly tablet form, which triggers the body’s natural system of healing"
"Based on their experience of their symptoms, a homeopath will match the most appropriate medicine to the patient."
Practitioners believe that the remedy, in conjunction with lengthy consultations, can help cure illnesses and alleviate symptoms.
However, most doctors believe the remedies themselves have no physiological effect, with the only benefits coming from the placebo effect and lengthy consultations.
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of the science and ethics at the BMA, said: "Homeopathic remedies do not have a scientific evidence base to support their use. And the BMA believes that limited and scarce NHS resources should only be used to support medicine and treatment that have been shown to be effective."
Dr Joanne Watt, a GP in Corby, Northamptonshire, said: "I would find it very difficult to explain to someone why I haven't been able to pay for their knee operation if we'd been paying for expensive sugar pills.
"This is like trying to introduce crystal healing into the NHS."
She added: "I do not doubt the benefit of a longer and holistic consultation, but feel it should not be necessary to see someone supplying an unscientific treatment to experience this."
The Department of Health said it was down to PCTs to decide if they wanted to fund homeopathy.
Another GP, Dr Mary McCarthy from Shrewsbury in Shropshire, thought the Government had caved in to those from the homeopathy lobby.
She said: "There is a small but vociferous minority who have influence with government which, I feel, is the reason that NHS funding has not been withdrawn."
Dr Sara Eames, president of the Faculty of Homeopathy and a former GP, said that homeopathy could be used to manage patients who were hard to treat and would otherwise require costly consultant referrals.
The Department of Health defended the availability of homeopathy on the NHS, and said only £152,000 was spent on homeopathic prescriptions in 2008.
She said: "We believe in patients being able to make informed choices about their treatment, and in a clinician being able to prescribe the treatment they feel most appropriate in particular circumstances, which may include complementary or alternative treatments such as homeopathy.
"It is the responsibility of clinicians to discuss the risks and benefits of specific treatment options with individual patients; and to take into account safety, clinical and cost-effectiveness and the availability of suitably qualified or regulated practitioners.
"Data shows that in 2008 just 0.001 per cent of the overall drugs bill was spent on homeopathic prescriptions."
Homeopathy 'overdose' protest See pages 33, 34, and 40, 41
By Matthew Moore, January 19, 2010
The protesters will drink large quantities of homeopathic fluids to illustrate their claim that the potions are too diluted to have any impact on the body.
Homeopathy has grown from an obscure alternative remedy to become a multi-million pound industry in the UK, with Prince Charles among its high-profile advocates. But critics say there is little scientific backing for its claims to ease conditions including asthma, migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis and depression.
Campaigners have already lobbied for the NHS to reduce its £4 million annual spend on homeopathic remedies and are now targeting Boots for profiting from what they claim is an "unscientific and absurd pseudoscience".
The Boots protests planned for later this month have been organised by campaign called 10:23, which grew out of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, a group of rationalist thinkers.
They will take place on high streets in Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow, Birmingham, Southampton and London, with sympathy protests in Australia, Canada and the United States.
Martin Robbins, a spokesman for the society, said: "The remedies themselves may not be directly harmful, but there is a real danger in misleading customers into thinking that homeopathy is somehow equivalent to real medicine.
"Patients may believe that they are treating themselves or their children adequately, and delay seeking appropriate treatment; or they may receive dangerous advice after consulting with homeopaths rather than their GPs."
He added: "The 'overdose' is a dramatic way of demonstrating to the public that these remedies have literally nothing in them. If eating an entire box of homeopathic sleeping pills fails to send one person to sleep, then how on Earth can their sale be justified?"
Boots, Britain's leading chemist chain, said that it supported the call for more research into homoeopathy but believed in giving consumers a choice.
Paul Bennett, professional standards director at the chemist, said: "Homeopathy is recognised by the NHS and many health professionals and our customers choose to use homoeopathy.
"Boots UK is committed to providing our customers with a wide range of healthcare products to suit their individual needs, we know that many people believe in the benefits of complementary medicines and we aim to offer the products we know our customers want.
"Our pharmacists are trained healthcare professionals and are on hand to offer advice on the safe use of complementary medicines."
Cristal Sumner, chief executive of the British Homeopathic Association, attacked the overdose as a "stunt" and said clinical trials showed that homeopathy was effective.
"Homeopathy only works on particular symptoms, so the idea that they can prove any point with a fake overdose just highlights the ignorance of the protesters," she said.
"There's a growing body of evidence that homeopathy works. The majority of clinical trials have been positive rather than negative."
The "overdoses" outside Boots stores are due to take place at 10.23am on January 30. The group expects at least 300 people to take part.
Little pill, big trouble
By Will Storr, November 26, 2011