Saturday, January 22, 2011

Testing Homeopathy

I have no personal experience with homeopathy, nor do I have a financial stake in it.

But I felt challenged to at least read up on materials in its favor after watching an episode of 'Market Place' and reading the blog of one of the participants, who is a friend of my rigidly scientific son.

Let me admit that the very nature of homeopathy makes it hard to prove its efficacy by strictly scientific methods. It also makes it particularly susceptible to hucksterism. Sturgeon's Law* must be kept in mind, but that also goes for conventional medicine.

To start with, much was made of the fact that no molecular trace of the active ingredient remains in a homeopathic remedy. It cannot be measured with our existing instruments, therefor it cannot lay claim to reality.

Proponents of homeopathy will retort that it works through mysterious forces which we don't yet know how to perceive or measure.  The fact that we don't quite know HOW something works should not keep us from continuing to observe, experiment, and use, if no harm is done in the process.

Draining swamps lowered the incidence of malaria, even though the cause was mistakenly attributed to "bad air" instead of to disease carrying mosquitoes. Microbes were causing disease long before humanity developed the instruments to see them. Some smart folks noticed that greater cleanliness seemed to foster a lower death rate. They were ridiculed and hounded. Ignaz Semmelweisz is the best known example. Science is always evolving. Today's woowoo may well be tomorrow's science.

Could water have memory? For the start of intriguing research visit here:
Please note the careful language here: the start of research is not the same as proof.
Someone asked: If water has memory, would it not also retain the memory of undesirable substances like animal faeces it has been exposed to? Now that is a valid question. I wonder if the intent of the process has anything to do with it. Yes, we are entering the woowoo world here.

The very nature of homeopathy makes it hard to test it scientifically. I know, this will be taken as a cop-out. But a fully trained, classical homeopath will spend hours with a patient to find the exact remedy that fits not that particular disease, but that particular patient at that particular time.   The 20 minutes TV show did nothing to test this kind of care.

This is very different from picking up a bottle in a health food store, though apparently some remedies, like Arnica, will work universally. I do agree with the criticism directed at the sales people. Claims were made in the "this for that" mode that did not stress the individualized nature of homeopathy.

Opponents will argue that the attention of the practitioner, rather than the healing method, is the active ingredient in in-depth classical homeopathy. Good old Doctor Placebo at your service. We could also ask: if the Placebo effect, which clearly suggests a connection between body and mind/emotion, is an accepted fact, why the resistance to medical models that actively use those connections?

If the Market Place experiment proved anything by having a bunch of volunteers down entire bottles of remedy, it is the basic harmlessness of over the counter homeopathic remedies, if taken by people who do not need them. Hippocrates "First do no harm" would be pleased.

Opponents also blame homeopathy for harm done to people who choose that modality when another method would be a better choice. As the song goes, "you gotta know when to hold em, know when to fold'em".  If you have raging pneumonia it is time for antibiotics, NOW. 

Health choices, especially when they are made by parents on behalf of children, can be agonizingly difficult. Both the conventional allopathic model and the slower-acting natural methods have their time and place. Both sides can drag out individual cases to bolster their stance. Unfortunately there is no foolproof way to make the right choice, all the time.
More thoughts on this topic here:
The vaccine issue deserves a blog on its own.

I once had the privilege of listening in on a dinner conversation  between two MDs** who were also trained as homeopaths and naturopaths. We need more such people. These doctors had at their disposal the full arsenal of drugs and herbs both modern and ancient, local and exotic.  They were not ideologues and would for instance not shy away from antibiotics if quick action were needed.

Their favorite healing modality: homeopathy. The way they talked about it, it might take a while to pinpoint the exact remedy for a person. It wasn't always possible. It was certainly not the only tool they used. But when it did work it provided the deepest and most lasting healing of all. I remember these words: "Like turning a key in a lock".

I am well aware that the personal experience of two physicians does not constitute scientific
proof. But it should at least give pause for thought.

Finally, I will let the homeopathic pros speak for themselves.
Foot Notes:
*Sturgeon's law: Theodore Sturgeon was a Science Fiction writer, best known for his classic "Slan" about an emerging mutation of telepathic humans. When someone told him that "Ninety percent of SF is Cr#p", Sturgeon replied: "Sir, Ninety percent of ANYTHING is cr#p."

**In case people are wondering: this conversation between Dr Mitch Fleischer and Dr. Linda Hegstrand took place during a dinner break at an Amazon Herb Company conference some years ago. I loved being part of that company and would still be there if they had not terminated all Canadian distributors, because the government was making things too hard.


Jacqui Binford-Bell said...

There is also the premise I first learned of in a psychology class that merely "testing" changes the results. We even ran a test where half the "testers" were expecting one result ant the other half the opposing outcome. And that is exactly how the results came out.

Attention can be a powerful "drug." Modern medicine makes its mistake be abandoning the patient in a faceless waiting room for upwards to an hour and then in the "exam" room for maybe another 30 minutes. The average patient sees the nurse for longer than the doctor, and doctors attend to a specific patient for only an average of 7 minutes.

New age cures like deep tissue massage are gaining advocates and even are being paid for by insurance companies because they work. But do they work in part because of the "healing time" spent with the patient, healing hands, or real skill. I had the experience of going to two different massage therapists after my ski accident. One actually made me worse with the deep tissues massage and one I believe to this day had healing hands.

Which gets us to the belief of the patient. Voodoo even works because of belief. The real good news is the doctors with degrees and training that are recognizing the time and attention factors as well as the immune boosts to be provided by herbs and vitamins.

But I believe that all tests are basically flawed.

Good blog

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Great comment and I did not see it until almost 7 years later. Forgot to hit the comment alert button.