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.