Aksha Ramaesh, 2nd year, poses a battle between homeopathy and orthodox medicine to see who will come out victorious
As a general rule of thumb, I would say that a branch of medicine that has a Mitchell and Webb sketch based on it is instantly worthy of mention, and publication to the masses. I will not ruin the intricately woven plot of the sketch, but just the fact that it exists at all should motivate you into reading the rest of this article, or at least looking it up on YouTube…and then reading the rest of this article.
From its conception by German doctor Samuel Hahnmann, homeopathy has been considered to be somewhat of a pseudoscience. By its very definition, homeopathy is an “alternative medicine”, a system that is notbased on evidence gathered using normal scientific methods. Yes, non-EBM (evidence based medicine)…an absolute travesty, a shameful mockery of true medicine, surely? Although to be perfectly honest, I am really just saying that to get a few brownie points from Jim! Nevertheless, imagine for me if you will, that you are not amedical student highly trained in the art of ‘believing all the science you are told to’. No, really, it will only be for a few minutes, and then you can go back and bury your head in the reassuring familiarity of Gray’s Anatomy (à la ostriches burying their head in the sand at the first sign of danger*).
*I am aware that this fact is not strictly true, but the metaphor works and I am proud of it.
There are two basic principles underlying homeopathy; firstly, “like treats like”, and secondly the practice of succussion (a process of dilution and shaking). “Like treats like” is the idea that a substance that causes certain symptoms can help to remove the same symptoms. The process of succussion is based on the concept that the more a substance is diluted in water, the greater its power to treat symptoms. Now before everyone starts waving their physiology textbooks in front of me and demonstrating their vast knowledge of bell-curves and pharmacology, you should know that most homeopaths themselves do not know why succussion works.
In some cases, the drug is diluted beyond Avogadro’s constant, x1023; at this level of dilution, the solution is essentially pure water. Some homeopaths believe that the process of succussion itself leaves an “imprint” on the solution, but there is no known mechanism in orthodox science by which this could occur. So the latter principle seems implausible, but what about the former?
The idea that “like treats like” at first glance appears to be equally improbable, but allow me to break it down and give an example that will be accepted by the majority of the student population: alcohol.
Let us paint a picture in our minds; it is Saturday morning and you have just woken up with a stupendous hangover from the night before and ask yourself what the best way to recover is. A large dose of fresh air and exercise? If you answered yes to the last question, you are very unlikely to make it through medical school, and might as well give up now; the answer is of course, hair of the dog! Well done if you answered correctly – yes, you, the one curled pathetically around the toilet bowl in last night’s outfit.
So let us summarise; so far, we have one point in favour of homeopathy and one in opposition. Fair enough, as you would be hard pushed to find a branch of medicine that had no associated debates or arguments.
Moving on then to the views of the general medical community on the practice of homeopathy. Firstly, a review by the Journal of Medical Ethics on the “unethical effects of funding unscientific ‘remedies’ ”. The overall conclusion from the article is that NHS trusts that fund homeopathic treatments are essentially pouring money down the drain, and this money could be more gainfully used on mainstream care. Furthermore, a point is made that in funding homeopathic remedies, the NHS is weakening the public’s trust in itself and the practice of medicine itself.
Now to even the playing field, an article to prove the beneficial effects of homeopathy. Much of the success of homeopathy comes from its placebo effect on patients; one study on pain in 1996 is a perfect example of how effective homeopathy can be. The mentioned experiment was carried out on a group of students who were informed that they were going to take part in a trial for a new painkiller ‘trivaricane’. The students were not informed that this new drug contained only water, iodine and thyme oil – not a single real painkilling agent or local anaesthetic in sight. Despite this, the administration of the placebo “significantly reduced ratings of the intensity and unpleasantness of experimentally induced pain. Furthermore, the magnitude of the placebo effect was virtually identical in both groups.” Therefore, students are especially gullible, or homeopathy is a valid science; you choose.
One final point in favour of homeopathy is that while it may not always help the patient directly, in the conditions it is used to treat, the high level of dilution makes it quite unlikely to do any harm. Meanwhile, many treatments or drugs in orthodox medicine have a variety of side effects ranging from palpitations to psychosis. For some patients, the placebo effect alone may be enough to settle or even treat their symptoms.
Ideally, this quick tour through the murky world of homeopathy was in some way informative, even if you are not stockpiling Deadly Nightshade and Devil’s Claw quite yet. At the very least, you will have learnt that Robert Webb would make a fantastic A&E doctor and that David Mitchell is just fantastic.
‘Homeopathy is where the harm is: five unethical effects of funding unscientific ‘remedies’’. D.Shaw. J Med Ethics 36:130-131. (2010)
‘Mechanisms of Placebo Pain Reduction: An Empirical Investigation’. G. Montgomery, I. Kesh. Psychological Science, Vol7, pp174-176. May 1996
‘Homeopathy’.www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Homeopathy/Pages/Introduction.aspx (visited 27/10/13)
‘What is Homeopathy?’ http://www.homeopathy-soh.org/about-homeopathy/what-is-homeopathy/ (visited 27/10/13)
‘The Placebo Effect’ http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/complementary-alternative-medicine/Pages/placebo-effect.aspx (visited 28/10/13)