Homeopathy – should pharmacists be selling homeopathic products?

jaynelawrenceBy Professor Jayne Lawrence FFRPS FRPharmS, Chief Scientist, Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Once again homeopathy is in the news. In fact it hardly ever seems to be out of it. It is certainly a subject that elicits much passion from both those who support it and those who believe it to be quackery.

However, it is not surprising that homeopathy (i.e. treating an illness with low doses of a material that – in a healthy individual – would produce symptoms similar to those of the disease being treated) rapidly caught on after its introduction by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1790’s when one considers medical practice at the time. Western medicine in the 18th Century, for example, made great use of toe curling practices such as bloodletting and purging, as well as administering complex mixtures, such as Venice treacle – a concoction of 64 substances including opium, myrrh, and viper flesh. Such treatments frequently worsened a patient’s symptoms, sometimes proving fatal. So it is easy to see why homeopathy, with its use of ultralow doses of the treatment material, became so popular so quickly, despite the fact that a clinical trial performed as early as 1835 showed that homeopathy as a method of treatment was wholly ineffective.

A more interesting question is what is the reason for the popularity of homeopathy now? After all, modern science does not support the scientific claims made by its supporters as to how homeopathy works. Indeed for homeopathy to work as claimed, we would have to completely revise our understanding of science. Any scientific evidence claiming to support homeopathy has either been shown to be flawed or not repeatable under controlled conditions. Furthermore, systematic reviews of modern clinical trials have supported the first early clinical trial showing that homeopathy has no more clinical effect than a placebo.

Is homeopathy’s popularity due to a distrust of modern medicines as has been recently suggested by the Chief Medical Officer for England who has just called for an independent review of the safety and efficacy of medicines? Or it is that patients are worried about the side effects associated with medicines, preferring what they perceive to be a safer approach; after all homeopathic preparations have not unsurprisingly no known toxic effects in over 200 years of use? Whatever the reason, as an evidence-based profession, why do we continue to sell homeopathic preparations in our pharmacies when the evidence shows that they do not work?

The public have a right to expect pharmacists and other health professionals to be open and honest about the effectiveness and limitations of treatments. Surely it is now the time for pharmacists to cast homeopathy from the shelves and focus on scientifically based treatments backed by clear clinical evidence.

Read the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Homeopathic and herbal products quick reference guide.

8 comments on “Homeopathy – should pharmacists be selling homeopathic products?

  1. According to Hahnemann the more you diluted the substance the more potent it was. An infant with no scientific training would laugh at that, and rightly so.
    Also the phrase “ultra-low doses” is dishonest. It actually means “no doses”.

    Homeopathy may be legal to sell, but as medicine it complies in every way with the definition of fraud. It’s time that its sale as medicine was legally declared as fraud.

  2. Perhaps we should keep open the possibility that we may have to completely revise our understanding of science? Isn’t that what it means to be truly scientific. Homeopathy can work. Not ever time and not by the way we would wish to be able to evaluate its action with the modelling used for many drugs. But, we also advocate the use of many older drugs which have never been trialled for the indications for which they are now prescribed. We support the use of vaccines in children where they have never been trialled and we endeavour to understand what is happening to the majority of sick and elderly patients who are regularly prescribed combinations of drugs never trialled together. Is this scientific? Lets be more open and honest with ourselves and our patients. We will do our profession a greater service and gain more confidence from the public.

    • You say “We will do our profession a greater service and gain more confidence from the public”
      The sure way to lose the confidence of the public (and everyone else) is to sell them mis-labeled pills that contain none of the ingredients listed on the label. That’s plain fraud.

      Pharmacists keep say that they want a bigger role in health care, but while they keep selling medicines that don’t work (like homeopathy. cough medicine and tonics) they don’t deserve that trust.

    • @Sue Warner
      “Perhaps we should keep open the possibility that we may have to completely revise our understanding of science?”. “Homeopathy can work. Not ever time and not by the way we would wish to be able to evaluate its action with the modelling used for many drugs.” These tired and tedious old tropes are no justification for belief in witchcraft. Science keeps revising itself, but it’s usually in the direction of a refinement that both opens new vistas and narrows things down at the same time. Homeopathy works only by personal testimony and delusion. Its entire underlyinh theory is scientifically unsupportable. It’s had 200 years to show itself genuinely effective under controlled conditions and it fails. That puts it in the same box as extrasensory perception, faith healing and all the countless other daffy things people trust in when their minds are wide open but lack the filters needed to stop their brains falling out.

  3. I am a Spanish pharmacist and pharmacy does not dispense my homeopathy. In Spain it is not common as in the UK, but I encourage them to do because they are more satisfactions than disappointments. Farmacia Rivaldo. Madrid

  4. I find this shameful display of Health fascism reprehensible in the light of the findings of the Parliamentary Science and Technology committee in 2013 to the effect that 50% of pharmaceutical drugs currently in use do not have sufficient clinical evidence to support their prescription.
    After the hearing the Chair of the Committee Andrew Miller MP said that the Science and Technology Committee had described the current lack of transparency of many clinical trials as “unacceptable”, adding that it had not been impressed with Government efforts to tackle the problem to date. “Many of the trials taking place today are unregistered and unpublished, meaning that the information that they generate remains invisible to both the scientific community and the public. This is unacceptable, undermining public trust, slowing the pace of medical advancement and potentially putting patients at risk.”
    As you are aware, or should be aware, the subsequent change to the regulation of clinical trials which ensued will not come in to effect until 2016.
    According to Dr Ben Goldacre, of AllTrials,” The future of clinical trials reporting is going to be different. But that’s not enough. Doctors don’t only use medicines invented after 2014: we use treatments that came on the market five, ten, twenty years ago, and more. All of this information is vital, but much of it is still being withheld. Getting access to these trials – on the medicines we actually use today – is much more important than changing reporting standards for new drugs, and could have a huge impact on medicine.
    This means we need action. We know the companies and organisations which hold this information. At the moment, there are huge differences between them: some still defend secrecy, or claim that sharing is impossible; while others have exposed that claim, by taking significant steps towards greater transparency. Many are staying silent. We think they are hoping that the AllTrials momentum will fizzle out.”
    Professor Peter C. Gotzche, Nordic Cochrane Collaboration, Denmark, contends the harm done by psych drugs causes a shocking 500,000 deaths in adults aged 65 and older every year in the Western World. He further contends that almost all randomized trials include patients already taking another psychiatric drug. In addition, Professor Gotzche blames under-reporting of deaths in drug company trials. As an example, he cites studies showing 14 suicides per 9,956 patients (a .14% rate) taking fluoxetine (Prozac) or paroxetine (Paxil). But because the FDA only included adverse events occurring up to 24 hours after patients stop taking the drug, they report only 5 suicides in 52,960 patients or just .0009%.
    Based on statistics like those and other studies, Professor Gotzche estimates there are 15 times more suicides among people taking antidepressants than are reported by the FDA.
    In his book Deadly Medicine and Organised Crime he exposes the pharmaceutical industries and their charade of fraudulent behavior, both in research and marketing where the morally repugnant disregard for human lives is the norm. He convincingly draws close comparisons with the tobacco conglomerates, revealing the extraordinary truth behind efforts to confuse and distract the public and their politicians. The book addresses, in evidence-based detail, an extraordinary system failure caused by widespread crime, corruption, bribery and impotent drug regulation in need of radical reforms.

    “The main reason we take so many drugs is that drug companies don’t sell drugs, they sell lies about drugs. This is what makes drugs so different from anything else in life….
    Virtually everything we know about drugs is what the companies have chosen to tell us and our doctors …
    The reason patients trust their medicine is that they extrapolate the trust they have in their doctors in the medicines they prescribe. The patients don’t realize that, although their doctors may know a lot about diseases and human physiology and psychology, they know very, very little about drugs that hasn’t been carefully concocted and dressed up by the drug industry…
    If you don’t think the system is out of control, please email me and explain why drugs are the third leading cause of death….
    If such a hugely lethal epidemic had been caused by a new bacterium or a virus or even one-hundredth of it, we would have done everything we could to get it under control.”
    I would therefore suggest that your time would be better spent in sorting out your own industry before attacking any other form of safe natural healing. Coming clean with the public about the findings of the Science and Technology Committee would be a very good place to start.

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