Homeopathy cops a concentrated dose of doubt
Homeopathic treatments have no proven value and people who use them instead of seeking scientifically verified therapy could be putting their health at risk, according to a damning assessment by the nation’s premier medical research organisation.
The National Health and Medical Research Council said a rigorous assessment of more than 1800 scientific research studies found “no good quality evidence” that homeopathic treatments were any better than taking nothing.
“All medical treatments and interventions should be underpinned by reliable evidence,” NHMRC Chief Executive Warwick Anderson said. “NHMRC’s review shows that there is no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy works better than a placebo.”
“The main recommendation for Australians is that they should not rely on homeopathy as a substitute for proven, effective treatments,” Professor Anderson said.
The finding, which has drawn the ire of advocates of complementary medicines, follows a lengthy inquiry by the Council.
Homeopathy involves the administration of highly diluted substances, and has been claimed as a remedy for a wide range of ailments, including potentially fatal illnesses such as malaria and HIV.
But the NHMRC found that of 225 scientific studies that investigated the effectiveness of homeopathy, most reported that claims homeopathy worked better than a placebo were not substantiated.
The Council said the few studies that did claim to find evidence homeopathy was effective were small or of poor quality: “These studies had either too few participants, poor design, poor conduct and/or reporting to allow reliable conclusions to be drawn on the effectiveness of homeopathy”.
But, despite such scepticism about its effectiveness, complementary medicine has become big business.
It is estimated that about two-thirds of Australians use some form of complementary medicine, such as vitamins, herbal products, and therapies such as homeopathy, kinesiology and yoga, and last financial year private health funds paid out $164 million in benefits for natural therapies.
Peak industry body Complementary Medicines Australia has disputed the NHMRC’s findings.
Chief Executive Carl Gibson said the industry was “very disappointed with the position taken by the NHMRC, especially when a number of independent experts in the sector have expressed strong concerns with the methodology of the review”.
Mr Gibson said the NHMRC failed to include a homeopathic expert on the review panel, and its research was shoddy, selective, based on flawed evidence and ignored the opinions of experts.
But the NHMRC’s findings reflect AMA concerns about the use of complementary medicines.
In a Position Statement (https://ama.com.au/position-statement/complementary-medicine-2012), the AMA said there was “limited efficacy evidence” regarding most complementary medicine.
“There is a substantial gap between the use of complementary medicine and the evidence to support that use,” the Association said. “Evidence-based, scientific research, in the form of randomised controlled trials, is required to validate complementary medicines and therapies for efficacy, safety, quality, and cost effectiveness.”
The Association cautioned that the use of complementary medicines could actually be harmful, warning that “unproven complementary medicines and therapies can pose a risk to patient health, either directly through misuse, or indirectly if a patient defers seeking medical advice”.
The advocacy group Friends of Science in Medicine said the NHMRC report confirmed what many scientific and public health experts had maintained for years, that “not only does homeopathy not work, if it did, chemistry, physics and physiology could not”.
“In short, the continued promotion of homeopathy would represent a commercial scam preying on the gullible,” the group’s President, Professor John Dwyer said.
Professor Anderson advised patients considering using homeopathy to first consult a registered medical practitioner, and “in the meantime keep taking any prescribed treatments”.
Published: 11 Mar 2015