Watch above: Dr. Ali Zentner discusses a recent study about the efficacy of homeopathy on Global National (Apr. 14)
One of the most important things a physician can do is to admit when they are wrong and to apologize. That time has come. On Monday Apr. 14, I made a mistake.
While reporting for my weekly Health Matters segment for Global National, I erroneously grouped homeopathy and naturopathy together for a segment on recent data regarding the merits of homeopathy.
In the segment when asked what homeopathy was, I made a broader, incorrect statement, grouping homeopathy into naturopathy as well.
Homeopathy does NOT use acupuncture or Chinese remedies; those belong to the larger naturopathic community.
Firstly let me say- it indeed was an error.
There was no malicious intent here. I don’t have a personal “vendetta”.
I am a physician and as, the medical correspondent to Global National, I assure our viewers that I take my job very seriously.
It is indeed an honour to have such a health platform that speaks to Canadians and not one I take lightly.
Allow me to correct my statement here.
Homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine first established in the late 1700’s by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician.
Hahnemann would expose healthy patients to various toxins and try to predict from the reaction they had what symptoms these toxins might indeed heal in a sick person.
The principles of homeopathy indeed stem from the principle that “like heals like”, meaning that a specific substance will cause a symptom or reaction in a body that will indeed “force” the body to fight off the very illness it is facing.
Hahnemann developed homeopathic remedies based on diluting specific toxins repeatedly in alcohol or water. The principle behind this was that the substances, once thought to be toxic would be present in such diluted amounts so as not to cause harm to the individual but indeed to still prompt a desired effect in the body.
Hahnemann believed that if two diseases with similar symptoms afflict a patient, the “stronger” disease would invariably cure the “weaker” one. He and most of his contemporaries believed in a supernatural “vital force” called “Vitalism” which governed all living processes. “Vitalism” was the explanation for life itself according to Hahnemann and did not obey physical and chemical boundaries of the time.
The principle of homeopathy rests in the idea that simulating symptoms of disease through homeopathic remedies will substitute themselves for natural diseases and prevent any influence on the “vital force”. In essence, you “prime” the system.
Today, homeopathic remedies still operate based on this principle of “like cures like”.
The remedies are prepared by repeatedly diluting a chosen substance in alcohol or water.
Homeopaths select such remedies by consulting reference books known as repertories and by “considering the totality of a patients’ symptoms”. In fact many homeopaths think that the weaker the dilution, the stronger the effect on the body.
On a purely logical level, I should say that I question the validity of the principles of homeopathy. After examining the history and principles of the field, I must admit that scientifically they do not make sense. To me.
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Diluting a substance even further means getting less of the substance at hand.
I don’t need to be a physician to know that this process sounds very similar to a “placebo effect”.
There is no scientific evidence to support the idea that homeopathic agents trigger any biologically meaningful effect in the body.
Furthermore, the idea of “Vitalism” has since been refuted by decades of scientific advancement. The body’s “life force” is a bit more complicated than Hahnemann would have us believe.
But forget the logical argument for a moment and explore the scientific evidence.
In the second part of my Global National segment, I spoke about the lack of evidence to support homeopathy.
Indeed a decade or so of research has shown that homeopathy is no better than placebo in treating a variety of ailments.
If we think about it for a moment, and allow logic to prevail how could a diluted toxin prompt the body to heal? How does making someone “a little bit sick” make him or her a great deal better? As for these “active agents”? Where is the science to support their biological correlation with the development of disease?
Furthermore, doesn’t diluting something more and more just make it less and less potent?
If you would like to abandon logic (yes, that was cheeky), let’s examine the evidence.
There are indeed hundreds of studies on homeopathy. I won’t list all of them here but in the interest of time, I’ll highlight a few.
A meta-analysis published in 2005 in The Lancet looked at 110 controlled studies of homeopathy and 110 studies of conventional medicine. These studies were matched to each other. The Lancet study showed no effect of homeopathy beyond that of placebo. This was a massive undertaking examining a large amount of evidence in a systematic way. The authors concluded that there exist publication biases on both sides, but that “When account was taken for these biases in the analysis, there was weak evidence for a specific effect of homoeopathic remedies, but strong evidence for specific effects of conventional interventions. This finding is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects.”
In 2006 the European Journal of Cancer showed no effect of homeopathy in a meta-analysis of six studies on cancer treatment.
Homeopathic practitioners published a study performed in Honduras in the Journal of Alternative Medicine that showed homeopathy to have no effect in treating diarrhea
A randomized placebo controlled trial on ADHD published in the Journal of Complimentary Medicine showed no difference between homeopathy and placebo in 44 children with ADHD.
In 2012, a review by the UK Government Science and Technology Committee suggested that Britain’s National Health Service stop paying for homeopathic remedies due to the science showing they were indeed no better than placebo.
And so last week Australia’s Medical Research Council released its finding based on a review of the last 16 years of data. The committee examined the evidence relating to the use of homeopathic remedies for over 68 diseases and found indeed that they worked no better than placebo.
This was the report I spoke of last week on air.
Many viewers took exception to the fact that I was wrong in my definition of homeopathy. They were justified. I did get the definition wrong.
But not one attempted to refute my claims that the science does not support the field. I found it impressive that they focused only on what I got wrong and not indeed what I had so terribly gotten right. Many were happy to insult my medical training and accuse me of bias.
I am biased. I’m a scientist and a doctor.
I believe that when we treat patients we must do so with evidence based approach and an inquisitive mind.
I believe in the principles and practices of body chemistry and of logic. Finally I believe that if you are going to make a claim to a vulnerable patient- indeed have the facts and the studies to back these claims up.
Last Monday, I misinformed my viewers on what homeopathy is. I grouped it into a broader area of alternative medicine that indeed has little evidence as well. I was called out and I have now corrected my claim.
I did not however misinform the public on the science behind what homeopathy does and does not do. The decade of science shows that homeopathy is no better than placebo.
To the homeopathic community, now it is your chance: get some real data on the benefits of your “alternative medicine” or own up to the science that suggests you are indeed no more than a placebo effect.
Make no mistake; I welcome the dialogue (as long as it is civil). I believe medicine should be transparent.
We should question and move the dialogue forward. This is indeed an emotional topic for many. I would in fact argue that homeopathy is very much a faith-informed practice that continues to function despite attention to science and logic.
I believe the viewing public has the right to know the truth.
I hope this piece will serve to give them just that.
Milazzo S, Russell N, Ernst E Efficacy of homeopathic therapy in cancer treatment. Eur J Cancer. 2006 Feb;42(3):282-9.
Aijing Shang MDa, Karin Huwiler-Müntener MDa, Linda Nartey MDa, Peter Jüni MDa, b, Stephan Döriga, c, Jonathan AC Sterne PhDb, Daniel Pewsner MDa, and Prof. Matthias Egger MD, The Lancet, Volume 366, Issue 9487, 27 August 2005-2 September 2005, Pages 726-732
Jennifer Jacobs, Anna-Leila Williams, Christine Girard, Valentine Yanchou Njike, and David Katz. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. October 2005, Vol. 11, No. 5: 799-806