And so begins the third installment in our Homeopathic Harms series, a collaboration between myself and @EBMScientist of the Evidence Based Skepticism blog. For this post, I have my lovely, wonderful friend @shandymarbles to thank for the idea and the action.
Indirect harms due to homeopathy can, as we're trying to cover in these posts, come in various different guises. In my opinion, there is none more dangerous than this: poor advice from homeopathic practitioners.
To set yourself up as a homeopath in the UK, you don't need any medical background. You also don't need to register with any regulatory bodies or undergo any standardized training. Medical homeopaths, i.e. doctors who practice it on the side, are of course regulated by the GMC, but your common or garden variety homeopaths could basically be anyone.
And yet, they claim to practice medicine and give advice on your health. Scary stuff, in my eyes. And I can give you a specific example of how harmful this can be, because one of my good friends contacted a UK homeopath recently. This homeopath is, as is proudly declared on his website, an engineer by trade.
Under the pseudonym Stacey Slater (which apparently didn't appear to ring any alarm bells with the homeopath in question), my friend asked for help in treating bipolar disorder. She said she had stopped taking the medication prescribed for it because she was getting horrible side effects, and asked if there was anyway that homeopathic treatments could help her stay stable and avoid psychosis. There are a few things to note here: the question was very specifically asking if homeopathy could be used instead of conventional medicines, and was asking about avoiding psychosis- we're talking about serious symptoms here, not a vague sort of "could it help with me feeling a bit down" sort of question. The description of "horrible side effects" would immediately ring alarm bells to me- what sort of side effects, and how is she feeling at that time.
Here's the response I would have liked to have seen in a dream world filled with responsible homeopaths (actually, in my dream world there would be no homeopaths at all, but you know what I mean):
Thank you for your enquiry. I'm sorry that you've stopped talking your medication for bipolar disorder, and would like to advise you in the first place to speak to your GP first of all about the side effects you have been experiencing. You should also discuss with them your decision to discontinue your medicines, as stopping them suddenly may cause your symptoms to worsen.
Homeopathy may be a useful option to help treat some of your symptoms. However, I wouldn't recommend that it is used instead of your usual medicines, unless this is done with the agreement of your medical team. Once you have spoken to them, please do contact me again and I will be happy to discuss any homeopathic treatment with you then."
This response covers all bases. It makes sure that the primary outcome of patient safety is covered by referring them to their own healthcare provider, however its also helpful and leaves open the possibility of some homeopathic treatment as an adjunctive, complementary treatment. It does not suggest that homeopathy can be used instead of her usual medication.
Here, however, is the real-life response:
Dear Stacey Slater,
Yes I am happy to help you for your Bipolar Disorder and will try to restore your previous health.
Recently, my grandmother has been treated for her 15 years long Bipolar disorder with only two weeks of homeopathic treatment. Now, my father-in law (Himself Medical Practishner) says she is 100% okay with homeopathic remedy and need not take any other medications.
To help you, I need some more information, like; your physical, mental and spiritual condition.
1. Any skin diseases are you suffering from?
2. Do you have problem of thyroid dysfunction? hyper or hypo?
4.High or low blood pressure?
5. Since how long are you suffering from Bipolar disorder?
6. Your family history, if any one in your blood relation have tuberculosis, diabetes, cancer or high blood pressure?
7. Your liking and disliking? Food,Drink, time and weather
8. Your family life, etc..
Your detail will help me to prescribe best remedy.
Looking forward to your reply,"
There are a few things to note here, as I'm sure you can tell. This homeopath claims that they will "try to restore to previous health"- in other words, he is offering a cure to bipolar disorder. We've got some anecdotes in there, in lieu of actual clinical evidence, and an extraordinary claim that longstanding bipolar disorder can be cured with only two weeks of magic woo water therapy. Now, given that bipolar is, by its very nature (and name!) a relapsing-remitting disease of two extremes, there is no way that an anecdote could be used as evidence of successful treatment. Who’s to say his grandmother wasn't just going through a good period that just happened to coincide with taking a couple of week’s worth of homeopathic medicines. How do we know she wasn't using effective conventional medicines at the same time? Who's to say she even exists? I can't help but wonder about his grandmother's right to confidentiality as well- has she given consent to be used as an anecdote in his consultations with other patients?
Who is this father-in-law mentioned? If he is so happy with the treatment, why isn't he happy to be named, and why is he even commenting on the grandmother's treatment? What relevance does this have to this homeopath's practice? The advice given that she "need not take any other medications" is a clear indication that this homeopath thinks that the homeopathy he advises can be used to "cure" bipolar disorder on its own, as an alternative to conventional medicine. By trying to make it seem like the advice has come from an actual medical practitioner, the homeopath is clearly trying to give this advice more credibility.
Lets have a think about the consequences of this advice: Our Stacey Slater is reassured that she doesn't have to continue on with her conventional medicines. She responds to the email above, goes on to have a consultation with the homeopath online (which costs £50 by the way- we're not talking pennies here. £50 for an email exchange!) She slips into psychosis, or mania, or a deep, deep depression. Eventually, she can't take anymore and she commits suicide. This homeopath has directly contributed to her death by not advising that she sees her medical team before discontinuing her medicines, and by claiming that she can be cured by inert sugar pills instead of continuing on with effective, evidence-based medication
The problem is, we can't gather robust evidence on this sort of thing, as it would be too unethical to do good, clinical studies. Maybe Stacey hasn't mentioned to anyone that she stopped taking her medicines and she was under the "care" of a homeopath- how would anyone know that the death was caused by him? And even if they did know, they're probably too upset and shocked at that point in time to think about raising a complaint. Who would write up a case report to publish in the medical literature? Certainly not the homeopath in question, he's not going to incriminate himself, and her medical team have probably had little contact with her since she's been advised not to bother with them anymore. And so homeopaths can continue to claim that their treatment is "safe", because we just don't know the scale of these sorts of cases.
The only bright side here is that, of course, my friend will most definitely not be taking this shoddy advice. She's well aware that homeopathy is a whole load of nonsense and just contacted this guy to see what the response would be. However, we have to wonder how many other emails he's getting, from people who are genuinely seeking help. And we have to wonder what's happening to them, and whether they are safe.As an interesting, and rather creepy, aside the homeopath started following my friend on Google plus and Twitter a couple of hours after responding to her. This is at best weird and unprofessional, and at worst, really quite frightening. I can't think of any healthcare professionals who would do such a thing, just randomly looking up a patient on social media and then following them after one consultation- what about confidentiality?