Homeopathy Is Little More Than Placebo Effect: Study

Critics call the research unscientific and biased

THURSDAY, Aug. 25, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- The clinical benefits of homeopathy are little more than a form of the placebo effect, a new study contends.

Homeopathic medicine is an alternative medical system. In homeopathic medicine, there is a belief that "like cures like," meaning that small, highly diluted quantities of medicinal substances are given to cure symptoms, when those same substances given at higher or more concentrated doses would actually cause those symptoms, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

Practitioners of homeopathy and their patients have always maintained these remedies work because they are true treatments.

Most homeopathic remedies are derived from natural substances that come from plants, minerals or animals. The remedies are prepared by diluting the substances in a series of steps. Many homeopathic treatments are so highly diluted that not one molecule of the original natural substance remains. The remedies are sold in liquid, pellet and tablet forms, NCCAM said.

But the study in the Aug. 27 issue of The Lancet casts doubt on homeopathy's benefits.

"When looking systematically at all placebo-controlled homeopathy trials and at a match group of trials from conventional medicine, we found errors that lead to an overestimation of treatment effects in both," said co-author Dr. Peter Juni, a researcher in the department of social medicine, at the University of Bristol, in England.

When the researchers compensated for those errors, Juni's team found strong evidence for the effect of conventional medicine, "but only weak evidence for a specific effect from homeopathic remedies," he said.

In their study, the researchers compared 110 placebo-controlled, randomized trials of homeopathy with 110 conventional medicine trials matched for disorder and type of outcome. The trials ranged from treatments for respiratory infections to surgery and anesthesiology.

"We found an effect for homeopathic therapy which is compatible with a placebo effect," Juni said. This effect, called a context effect, "comes from a powerful teaming up between patient and physician, leading to strong belief in healing, in combination with the placebo effect, in combination with the natural history of the disease," he said.

Juni thinks the findings show that homeopathic remedies don't have any biological benefits. "Based on these trials, remedies which do not fit into our traditional concepts of biological mechanisms do not have a specific effect," he said. "We cannot prove the negative, but we find an effect which might just be a placebo effect or a nonspecific effect."

Juni believes the power of homeopathic medicine lies in the total experience between patient and physician. "The specific homeopathic remedy is a vehicle of the whole process, which includes symbolism, which includes a nontraditional way of doing the patient history," he said.

For conditions such as a headache or backache, not related to a clear-cut organic problem, Juni thinks that teaming up with a homeopathic physician might be worthwhile. "But the question is whether telling patients there is no specific effect of the remedy will lead to destruction of the whole healing process," he said.

For serious medical conditions, there's no problem including homeopathy with traditional medicine, Juni said. "However, using homeopathy as an alternative treatment rather than as a complementary treatment is extremely problematic," he said. "This should be discouraged."

Critics of Juni's findings voiced two main objections: The first is that the notion that homeopathic remedies have no specific effect is scientifically indefensible; and second, the study is biased against homeopathy.

The claim that diluting active ingredients in homeopathic remedies renders them inactive is the only argument that traditional medicine uses against homeopathy, said Rustum Roy, a professor of science, technology and society emeritus at Pennsylvania State University.

"In material science this is done everyday," Roy said. "It's a standard industrial process to transfer information of the structure of a molecule into a liquid."

Joyce C. Frye, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania, said, "These authors went into the study assuming that any positive findings in homeopathy are from methodological deficiencies or biased reporting."

Frye believes that to properly evaluate homeopathy, studies are needed that focus on individual patients, not diseases. Homeopathy is based on finding individual, tailored treatments for individual patients, she explained, adding, "In homeopathy we don't treat diseases, we treat people."

More information

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine can tell you more about homeopathy.

SOURCES: Peter Juni, M.D., Medical Research Council Health Services Research Collaboration, Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, England; Rustum Roy, Ph.D., professor of science, technology, and society emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, University Park; Joyce C. Frye, D.O., postdoctoral fellow, Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Aug. 27, 2005, The Lancet
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