Is homeopathy “just placebo”?
Popular opinion now holds that homeopathic remedies can’t possibly work. But, for more than 250 years, patients have patently been getting better due to homeopathic treatment. Detractors typically argue that this is purely down to the ‘placebo effect’ - in other words, they suggest that homeopathy is a con.
What is a placebo?
Placebo translates as "I please." Is a person administering ‘inert’ treatment – a mother ‘kissing it better’, a doctor or any other practitioner – trying to ‘placate’ the patient? Is a standard painkiller free from the ‘placebo effect’?
It's true that homeopathic remedies are serially diluted while undergoing a vigorous agitation process called ‘potentization’. However, homeopaths argue that this produces a medicine that is not less powerful but is indeed more powerful than the original substance.
To understand the power of homeopathic treatment, we should first take a look at mainstream medicine.
How effective is mainstream medicine and why?
As a society, we hold the belief that doctors and GPs are good people who wish to help us. We recognise this - almost 75% of patients have confidence and trust in their GP (BMJ, 2013).
Let's take the treatment of migraines as an example - there are 190,000 migraine attacks a day in the UK. People visit their GP looking for treatment and may be prescribed painkillers to appease their symptoms. Of course, the prescription painkillers provide ad-hoc relief, but they may also have a panoply of side effects. But, the patient is happy enough, due to the trust in the medical profession.
However, it is believed that 30-50% of the effectiveness of any given treatment is down to placebo – for example, with painkillers, relief is faster and greater than chemically plausible.
Add to this, trust in the science behind modern medicine - partly due to the real physiological changes from the medical ingredients, partly due to these cumulative placebo layers - mainstream medicine has it all stacked in its favour.
Trust and expectation are considered key aspects of the placebo response.
So, why are there so many patients who don’t seem to respond to 'placebo power' plus ‘real medicine’? And why, in the face of much public ridicule, do so many people still consult a homeopath for their migraine, or a host of other chronic conditions?
Patients find homeopathy highly effective
The typical homeopathy patient comes with a long history of disappointing medical treatments. Sometimes they come armed with serious doubts but nothing to lose. Sometimes they come with unrealistic expectations of miracle cures. Is it ‘just the long consultation’ perhaps? But, homeopathy consultations can be as short as a GP appointment.
Migraine attacks permanently mitigated, eczema removed or minimised without steroids – homeopaths see such results regularly. Can it be just the 'placebo effect' of taking a homeopathic remedy?
My answer? Homeopathy works because the prescribing principle – careful selection of similars, verified by healthy provers – simply works.
The mechanism of action may not be fully understood yet, and the discussion will continue. But there is no doubt that homeopathic remedies (correctly prescribed by a homeopath) are highly effective in treating a wide range of ailments. So yes, a proportion of this effectiveness will be due to the ‘placebo effect’ – just as it is in mainstream medicine.
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