homeopathic harms

Homeopathic Harms 3.1 Addendum: C's Story

Imagine you're twelve years old.

You're on the cusp of adolescence, a time where you start to move away from the comfort and protection of your family and begin to forge your own way in life. Friendships become increasingly important, and you're in a constant process of trying to make new ones, maintaining old ones, and falling out with others. The world seems confusing, terrifying, and wonderful in varying measures, and you spend a lot of your time watching those around you and drinking in how they act, what works and what doesn't, deciding how to act yourself to fit in and be accepted. This is the time when, though the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet. you start to put down little social foundations and try to make sense of the world. 


There is a wealth of evidence that suggests many benefits of connecting with people of your own age during adolescence. At such a crucial, tumultuous time of life, being socially isolated from your peers can have long lasting and harmful effects. 


What's this got to do with homeopathy?

I've written before about how poor advice from homeopaths can potentially cause a lot of damage, and through our Homeopathic Harms series of blog posts, Nancy (of the Evidence Based Skepticism blog) and I have hopefully managed to convey to you an idea of how it can sometimes be the seemingly innocuous and difficult to quantify harms that can be most worrying.

I received an e-mail the other day that I have since been thinking a lot about and which I wanted to share with you. Its a real-life example of just how much harm poor advice from a homeopath can cause. The chap who sent me the email has very kindly allowed me to share his story with you, but of course I am going to respect his anonymity and refer to him as C.

C's story

C. had delayed puberty. Now this is something that is fairly common, happening in about 3% of cases, and which can be caused by a number of factors, but the most common type is Constitutional delay in growth and puberty (CDGP). This is basically a technical way of saying 'Just one of those things, which might be caused a whole load of stuff or possibly just chance.'

Conventional medicine would manage CDGP by... well, usually just by waiting, really. Monitoring, and reassurance are often all that is required. Otherwise, short courses of sex hormones should be enough to do the trick. If the delay in puberty is caused by something, then ideally the underlying cause would be appropriately treated. You can see some good, reliable guidance on management here

Note, by the way, that the definition of delayed puberty according to patient.co.uk specifies '...in boys beyond 14 years old'.  Now, I have no way of saying what the definition of delayed puberty was at the time that we join C's story, but his experiences began when he was 12- well below the point where we would diagnose delayed puberty nowadays.

C's mother consulted a homeopath. He was given some homeopathic pills, which on account of just being made out of sugar, had no beneficial effects, but also no harmful effects. However, the homeopath also appears to have given C's mum some advice, the goal of which seems to have been isolating him from his peers between the ages 

C was:

  • not allowed to stay at school for lunchtime, but instead had to go home.

  • not allowed to stay at school after the school day had finished.

  • not allowed to cross the local footbridge over the motorway, which cut him off from the majority of his peers.

  • not allowed to go down the street of the one classmate who lived on his side of the motorway.

  • allowed and encouraged to socialise with one boy who was two years his junior.

The first question is why. Why on earth would a homeopath give such advice? We can only speculate that the homeopath in question thought- apropos of nothing- that since C was a late developer he should be kept away from people his own age and instead only socialise with younger children. I've had a look around some homeopathic websites on the internet, and found nothing that looks similar to this sort of advice. [I did, however, find this website, which amused me no end due to its impressive reference list. No, really, go and look at the link and scroll to the bottom, if you want a good laugh]. In fact, I couldn't find anything at all suggesting that enforced social isolation is good for anyone or for treating anything, really. 

C's case would appear to be one of a homeopath acting outside of their competence and providing bizarre and very harmful advice. In C's case, homeopathic treatment was certainly not safe, although this had nothing to do with the sugar pills themselves.

The result of this set of rules on C were, in his own words:

"a boy who was immature, shy and lacking in self-confidence. When it came to puberty I had significant mental health problems (starting with OCD due to high levels of anxiety) which have had an impact throughout my life....I didn't regain a sense of normality (in terms of socialising properly) until the age of 25-26."

Limitations

C's story is, of course, merely one anecdote, and as good skeptics we of course have to realise the limitations of it. There's nothing to say that, if C hadn't have followed these rules, he wouldn't have gone on to develop any mental health problems, and indeed delayed puberty itself is not without an increased risk of psychological problems.

Given our very human need to fit in, it may be the case that children with delayed puberty have a preference for younger friends, as they stand out less. This is entirely understandable, but in C's case it is clear that his situation was enforced upon him.

 But given the established link between social isolation in adolescence with mental health issues, I think we can pretty safely say that this is a case where at the very least homeopathy worsened his situation. His quality of life was undoubtedly affected when he had to obey the rules.


Thankyou to C
 

Many, many thanks to C for sharing his story with me. I think its so important to hear these stories, as they might help to raise awareness of the less obvious, nebulous harms that can arise from treatment by unregulated, alternative practitioners. Unfortunately, its really difficult to quantify these sorts of harms into cold hard evidence, and that's why I, and many others like me, keep banging on as loudly as we can about them. If you have any examples of potential harm caused by homeopathy, it goes without saying that I would love to hear from you. 


H xxx

Homeopathic Harms Vol 7: Professional Ethics

In February 2013, my friend @EBMScientist and I delivered a Newcastle Skeptics in the Pub talk entitled Homeopathy: Where's The Harm? As a follow up to this, we decided to write a series of blog posts expanding on a number of points we covered in the talk:

"Ethics is the science of morals, or moral philosophy. The principles, written or unwritten, that are accepted in any profession as the basis for proper behaviour are the ethics of the profession" -Dale and Appelbe's Pharmacy Law and Ethics

As you'll know by now, I'm a pharmacist. And as such, I have to be registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) to practice in the UK. I'm therefore governed by the GPhC, and in particular their code of conduct, ethics and performance, which has seven main points:

  1. Make patients your first concern

  2. Use your professional judgement in the interests of patients and the public

  3. Show respect for others

  4. Encourage patients and the public to participate in decisions about their care

  5. Develop your professional knowledge and competence

  6. Be honest and trustworthy

  7. Take responsibility for your working practices.

If I-or any of my colleagues- were to act against this code of ethics, we could be held to account by our regulator and reprimanded accordingly. Other healthcare professionals- Doctors, nurses etc- all have similar codes of conduct produced by their regulatory bodies. They all have one thing in common- that the patient is central to everything you do, and if a member steps outside this code of conduct, there is a clear and organized route through which complaints or concerns can be raised. This is as it should be: healthcare professionals have the lives of patients in their hands, and need to be held to account if anything goes wrong. As I've written before in this series, homeopaths don't have to register with a regulatory body and anyone can set themselves up as a homeopath with no training whatsoever. Whilst some 'professional' bodies exist in the UK, they have no regulatory powers so are unable to reprimand anyone if they receive a complaint.

Health care professionals who also practice homeopathy still have a duty to ensure that they abide by their regulatory body's code of ethics. In my opinion, however, it is very difficult to reconcile some of the clear guidance with homeopathic principles. Let's take a look at what I mean, using some selected points from the  the first two standards of the  GPhC's Code of Ethics July 2012 as a guide. (I'll cover the rest of the points in another post)

1. Make Patients Your First Concern
Under this heading, the GPhC states that we must "Make sure the services you provide are safe and of acceptable quality". Given the lack of high quality information that homeopathy works, we are unable to guarantee that such a service is of acceptable quality. You'll also know if you've read the rest of this series of blog posts that there is a lack of evidence regarding the harms- both direct and indirect- of homeopathy- so how could we guarantee that it is safe?

2. Use Your Professional Judgement In the Interests of Patients and The Public
There are a couple of relevant points here. firstly we are told that we need to make sure that professional judgement is not affected by personal or organizational interests or incentives. If you're going to charge for a homeopathic service on the side of your usual practice, then there is already a clear personal incentive to promote homeopathy.  We can minimize the possibility of such things affecting our professional judgement by making sure that we use evidence to guide treatment decisions wherever we can: evidence-based medicine is not perfect, but its the most objective method we have at the moment. And, as you'll know, there is no good evidence at all that homeopathy works. 

We are also advised to:

 "Be prepared to challenge the judgement of your colleagues and other professionals if you have reason to believe that their decisions could affect the safety or care of others"

I myself-and other pharmacists-have done this: I've spoken out about Tony Pinkus, for example, a pharmacist who endangers patients' lives by promoting unlicensed homeopathic vaccines or sugar pills to prevent malaria. In Nancy's latest blog post, she covered some of this, and I know Adam at Dianthus Med has also been discussing this point on twitter and his blog lately. Its clear-from our own professional guidance-that where patient safety is in danger, we do not protect our own- we need to report, speak out, and denounce those amongst our colleagues who let the profession down.

Homeopaths, on the other hand, seem to have no such obligation. We've been struggling to think of one single example of where homeopaths have spoken out against other homeopaths where patient safety has been endangered. In a conversation on twitter, for example, no homeopath would say that it was inappropriate for a homeopath to have said that a homeopathic remedy could have saved someone who died due to injuries sustained in a horrific gang-rape and disembowelment.  I recently asked some homeopaths on Twitter whether they would speak out against a colleague who put patients in danger. The answer I received from one was shocking:

"When its so easy 2 wink at 1's own sins, seems impossible 2 find judge orjury before whom 2arraign the 1st law breaker. KENT" (sic)- @22VenkateshN

Admittedly this particular homeopath that responded (he was the only one) has a reputation for obfuscation, but this reply seems to suggest that no, he wouldn't report, in case someone did similar to him. I tried to clarify : "so to clarify: you wouldn't speak out in case someone else did the same to you? A yes or no would suffice, thank you". The reply:

"some questions can't be replied with a simple 'yes or no'. for example_ 'are you still mad ?'"- @22VenkateshN


I'm not sure what he is trying to imply by asking about being mad, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt and ignore any insinuations he might have been trying to make. What is staggering is the reluctance to admit that he would put patient care first and report a fellow homeopath in a situation. As a health care professional-and a good person- the code of ethics  becomes deeply ingrained in your being. Its second nature- and pretty obvious- that you would put the needs of a patient first. I persisted further,  trying to make it easy for him to agree that you would report a colleague: "It's very easy, if you work under clear ethical guidance. homeopaths do have that, right?: patient safety comes first: therefore yes, you would report and denounce a colleague who endangered it." Again, the reply astounds:

"Its not that easy, every one accusing everyone else would result. That's why I tweeted the appropriate observations of Kent"- @22VenkateshN

Wow. So it would seem- on the basis of this sort of conversation and the complete radio silence from any other homeopaths- that no, they wouldn't report or denounce a fellow homeopath because some sort of petty slanging match would ensue. Instead of a clear referral process to deal with complaints, accusations would be flying all over the shop- and one very, very important aspect gets forgotten: patient safety. 

I'd love to be proved wrong here. I'd love to think that medical homeopaths or pharmacists who also practice homeopathy would do otherwise, in accordance with their code of ethics. But I'm currently deafened by their silence. If I were one of the more professional, caring homeopaths who really did want to do the best for their patients, I would be utterly horrified and disgusted by some of the claims and actions of others, and I'd want to-nay I'd feel obliged to- speak out against them for the good of my own practice. I'd be embarrassed to be associated with them.

So here's your chance, homeopaths. Speak up against bad practice and drown out the previous deafening silence. Go right ahead: I'm listening intently. And while you're at it, please do take a few minutes out to respond to Adam's Challenge to the Society of Homeopaths too

 

Homeopathic Harms Vol 5: Interactions

In February 2013, my friend @EBMScientist and I delivered a Newcastle Skeptics in the Pub talk entitled Homeopathy: Where's The Harm? As a follow up to this, we've decided to write a series of blog posts expanding on a number of points we covered in the talk.

In the next instalment of our series on the harms of homeopathy, I want to talk about interactions. I've covered this a bit in the past, but let's have a look at this area in a bit more detail.

We all hopefully know by now that homeopathic medicines pretty much have no trace of active ingredient in them by now. Do we need to worry about drug interactions with homeopathic remedies?
 

Can homeopathic medicines interact with conventional medicines?

The obvious answer is no. Magic Sugar Water Pills are highly unlikely to affect any conventional medicines. There's a lack of actual evidence to prove this, but I think it's pretty safe to rely on a theoretical basis here. So that's great, right, blog post over and see you later. If only it were that simple. 
 

Can homeopathic practitioners interact with conventional medicines?

Unfortunately, yes. very much so. It's pretty well known that homeopathic practitioners step over (and in some cases stomp over, then jump up and down repeatedly on) the boundaries between conventional and homeopathic medicines, just by the advice they give. One example would be vaccines- many homeopathic practitioners are against vaccines and therefore advise their patients to avoid them- Just look at the emails sent by pharmacist (and embarrassment to the profession) Tony Pinkus to an undercover BBC reporter. Little offhand remarks about the toxicity of conventional medicines, or big pharma conspiracies, or how conventional medicines might not work, all add up to the effect of harming the patient's relationship with their actual doctor. And how about the spectacular example of inappropriate advice in my previous post? 

Can conventional medicines interact with homeopathic medicines?


I'd like to say no here, because of course homeopathic medicines are inert and don't actually contain any medicine. It is the case, however, that homeopathic practitioners unfortunately think otherwise, which can lead to a huge amount of harm as patients discontinue their conventional medicine in favour of homeopathy.

I have in front of me a book called "Homeopathic Pharmacy", by Stephen Kayne. This is a book aimed at healthcare professionals, and indeed is a  recommended resource for medicines information pharmacists in the UK. (EDIT: This book no longer appears as a recommended source.) And yet, even this source, which we could consider to be one of the more balanced tomes (despite the ominous mention of Dana Ullman in the acknowledgements), contains a wealth of dangerous nonsense. This book tells me that, for example, "potent topical steroids are thought to negate the use of  homeopathy in the treatment of eczema and psoriasis" Now I know more than some that skin conditions such as this can be horrifically uncomfortable, not to mention their effects on your self-esteem. Stopping treatment that works in favour of a placebo is not, in my opinion, acceptable in any shape or form, especially given how vulnerable and desperate people can be because of skin conditions- don't forget that in some cases, dermatological conditions are terminal, as they can drive sufferers to suicide.  

There can, apparently, be interactions between oral steroids and homeopathy too. "the patient's symptoms tend to be masked, however, making an accurate choice of remedy much more difficult", we are told on page 205 of Homeopathic Pharmacy. Well, you could call it a masking of symptoms, or you could- as I prefer, refer to it as "working". So what is the average homeopath to do then, when presented with a patient who is taking steroids but seeking their help? It would seem that the obvious (but sadly not the ethical) solution would be to ask them to discontinue their steroids so that that the symptoms are "unmasked". This will obviously lead to an increase in symptoms for the patient, and lead to unnecessary suffering, but it can also precipitate acute adrenocortical insufficiency, which can in the worst case scenario be fatal. Patients should "ideally" discontinue their steroids for 6 weeks prior to initiating a homeopathic remedy- this is more than enough time to result in loss of control in their condition.  

It's not just drugs themselves that can be a problem, but the excipients (inactive ingredients used in the formulation of a medicine) too. Strong flavours used in syrups, for example. This could potentially discourage patients to take- or to give their child- antibiotic syrups, with the potential to worsen or prolong a patient's condition. 
 

Can foodstuffs interact with homeopathic medicines?

  
Yes, apparently so, though again there is no hard study evidence for this- why would there be, when there's no good hard study evidence that homeopathy works in the first place? Coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate, and spicy foods are all to be avoided. Aside from being unnecessarily restrictive, and potentially causing a patient anxiety, this idea fills me with horror. Imagine a life without tea, chocolate, or spicy foods. I rely on all of these three things to get me through my daily life, and would inevitably become depressed if I had to avoid any of them.
 

Can homeopathy interact with homeopathy? 


I know, right? What a bizarre question, given that homeopathic remedies are sugar with specially shaken water sprinkled on. Can sugar interact with sugar? Well it seems that someone has decided that they can, based on a grand total of no evidence. Aromatic preparations, such as camphor, menthol, and peppermint, are supposed to inactivate other homeopathic medicines. Remember, though, that homeopathic camphor, menthol  or peppermint is highly unlikely to actually contain any molecules of camphor, menthol or peppermint, and we're left in a bit of a ridiculous situation based on nothing at all. 

It would seem that homeopaths utilize certain foods or remedies as "antidotes". Apparently, if a remedy isn't working, and they want to try something else, they might ask a patient to drink a cup of coffee, or take a remedy like camphor to "wash out" the previous remedy so that they can start again. I'll refer you again to "Homopathic Pharmacy"- with a reminder that this is one of the more reasonable texts:

"It is certainly not dangerous in life-threatening terms, but used injudiciously will interfere with the vibrational pattern of the vital force."

Vital force, vibrational energy, sugar as an antidote to sugar, and none of it- not a scrap- based on science, evidence, or even basic logic.

See you again soon for the next episode :)

Hxxx

Homeopathic Harms Vol 3: Poor Advice

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):

"Dear Stacey,
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:

"To,
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?
3. Diabetes?
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? 

Hxxx

Homeopathic Harms Vol 2. Where's the Evidence?

Here's the next in our series of blog posts following on from our SITP talk about the harms of homeopathy. This is a guest post written by the marvellous @EBMScientist of Evidence-Based Skepticism fame. Now, I'm going to be a bit bossy here and insist that, if you haven't already bookmarked her blog, you do so right this minute. Future blog posts in this series will just be posted on our respective blogs, but we'll be sure to post links to all of them so you don't miss any instalments. so, without further ado, I shall hand you over to @EBMScientist:

We often harp on about the evidence for homeopathy working or otherwise, and I’m not going to touch on that here, because it’s been covered beautifully by many more eloquent writers than me.  What you don’t often see though, is comment on the evidence for homeopathy doing harm.  In the last post in this series the lovely @SparkleWildfire touched on medicalisation, an indirect harm that’s very real but tough to quantify; but what about direct harms?  I’m glad you asked…

In conventional medicine, randomised controlled trials are the best kind of study we can do of a drug to see if it works and if it it’s safe.  What maybe doesn’t mentioned quite so often is that there’s an even *better* form of evidence – the systematic review.  These are produced when someone sits down to do the very tough but remarkably important job of finding every single scrap of evidence they can on a given topic, and pooling it all together to try and get closer to the definitive answer.  The result is a document that represents the best evidence possible for how well a drug (or anything else, for that matter) works, and how safe it is.

One of the biggest and most respected sources of these systematic reviews is theCochrane Collaboration, who cover all areas of medicine.  Happily, they also have a few reviews related to homeopathy, and that seems as good a place to start as any.  The most recently published is:

Homeopathic Oscillococcinum® for preventing and treating influenza and influenza-like illness

The authors searched multiple databases of medical literature, covering a time period dating back to the mid-60s and all the way up until August 2012.  That’s a lot of literature.  Out of all the results they found six randomised, placebo-controlled trials of Oscillococcinum that were similar enough to be directly compared.  Since we’re not really interested in efficacy in this review, I’ll skip straight to the safety part: out of these six trials, including a total 1,523 people, there was one reported adverse event.  One. It happened to be a headache. Let’s stop and think about that for a moment.

A good quality randomised controlled trial collects every single adverse event that happens to every single patient.  And the use of the term “adverse event” is very deliberate, because it includes absolutely everything unexpected and unwelcome that happens (and here’s the key part) whether or not it’s likely to be related to taking the drug.  That might sound counter-intuitive, but the reason is simple – we want to pick up every possible side effect of drugs, and sometimes side effects are…weird.  So it might sound odd to include as an adverse event that someone got hit by a bus, but what if the drug they were taking made them dizzy, or confused, or clumsy?  It’s not unreasonable to suggest that any one of those things could end up in getting you involved in a traffic accident.  So every single little thing is recorded, and once the trials is over you do some sums to work out the key question – are these things *more likely to happen in the people who took the drug*? If 20 people broke a leg but they were equally spread out among the trial groups then nothing further needs to be said; if 19 of them were on the drug being studied then there might be something to worry about.  The flip side of that of course is that if 19 were in the placebo group, you might want to wonder if the drug is (perhaps unintentionally) promoting better balance and co-ordination, for example (or if everyone in the placebo group was a keen but inept snowboarder).

Is that one single adverse event out of over 1,500 people taking Oscillococcinum starting to look fishy yet?  What about if I drop in the snippet that some of the people involved (327, to be precise) took the remedy every day for four weeks, to see if it stopped them from getting flu in the first place?  How many times in four weeks would an average, healthy person experience something that you could call an adverse event – a headache, a tummy upset, indigestion, a strained ankle, a touch of insomnia?  I’ve had three of those things in the last 24 hours, and I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly remarkable individual.


So hopefully you can see from this that there’s simply a huge, yawning hole in the evidence about safety in homeopathy.  There are ways and means to address this (though they’re far from perfect), and I’ll address one of those in my next post in this series.

Homeopathic Harms Vol 1: Medicalisation

In February 2013, my friend Nancy and I delivered a Newcastle Skeptics in the Pub talk entitled Homeopathy: Where's The Harm? As a follow up to this, we've decided to write a series of blog posts about a number of points we covered in the talk. Here is the first:   

Doctor's appointments: often you feel like you're in and out before you know it, and they can't get you out the door quick enough. They have a target number of minutes to spend with each patient, and sometimes you can feel like they don't have as much time as you'd like to discuss all the things you want to with them.

There is, then, one aspect of homeopathic practice which can be superior to that of conventional medicine: the consultation. A homeopath might spend an hour or more assessing each individual, not just asking about particular symptoms but about their personality as well, how they think and feel about the world. I've never been to see a homeopath, but I'd imagine this is really valuable to a patient, particularly those with minor mental health complaints. I know myself that when I've been to see a good GP who I feel has really listened to me, I leave feeling a bit better already. 

I suspect that the consultation itself may be part of what provides benefit to patients, rather than the sugar pills that are given out at the end of it. I'm not aware of any evidence that compared individualised homeopathic treatment to the OTC stuff though, which would be the only way to tease out and quantify any benefit from the consultation.

So what's the problem here? If a consultation with someone who appears to listen to you and care makes you feel better, where's the harm in that? The sort of subtle, indirect harms that we'll be discussing in this series of posts are often theoretical and would be very, very difficult to assess via hard, clinical evidence, so you'll have to bear with me while I discuss them with you and see if they make sense at the end of it. Consider the following story: 

Imagine I'm quite an anxious person (in actual fact I am, so it doesn't take that much imagining to those who know me). Imagine I'm particularly anxious at the moment because I maybe have a public speaking event (something like Skeptics In The Pub, say!) to deliver in a few week's time. I might be finding it hard to sleep, I find I'm worrying about it quite often, and getting some physical symptoms- my heart is beating quite fast at times, say, and my stomach hurts at times, but it's nothing too serious.

I go to visit a homeopath (admittedly, this would be an unlikely thing to do if I was actually talking about myself) who takes time to discuss with me my problems. I get on well with them, and feel like they are really listening to me. During the discussion, I find that vocalising my anxieties helps me to rationalise them and my fears are allayed somewhat. Just the act of talking about it makes me feel better- in other words, the homeopath is delivering a talking therapy service to me. By the end of the consultation, I'm already feeling more in control of my anxieties, yet I'm still given some tablets to take home, and I dutifully follow the instructions I'm given.

As I've discussed elsewhere, there is a stigma about mental health issues. This also, unfortunately, extends to talking therapies too. Its quite likely that some people would be happier to declare "I'm seeing a homeopath" than "I'm seeing a counsellor" in front of their friends or acquaintances. The handing over of the sugar pills at the end of the consultation will no doubt suggest the talking bit is more "justified", and they can convince themselves that they're not mad, or the sort of weak person who would have to resort to a talking therapy. And thus, the stigma is reinforced. Talking therapies shouldn't be something to be ashamed of. You don't need some inert sugar pills to justify and hide the fact that, now and then, you just need to be able to talk to someone about your problems or feelings.

There are wider issues with this kind of thing too. The visit to the homeopath has made me feel better. I've been to see someone, left with some pills in my hand, and I've improved, reinforcing the fact that I feel better when given something to take. Let's say that in the next few months, I feel a bit rubbish because I've had a bit of a cold and I'm left with a cough that's been there for a couple of weeks. I go to see my Dr, who tells me that my chest is clear, and the cough should clear up of its own accord. However, I've expected to get something out of the visit- I don't want to leave the surgery with no pills in my hand, as I know that last time I left a consultation about my health I was given pills at the end of it and I felt better. It's left to the Dr to explain to me that I don't need antibiotics, and this can be a notoriously difficult thing to do. Some Drs might relent and give me a prescription for an antibiotic, contributing to the catastrophic situation we're in now with antibiotic resistance. If the Dr doesn't give me a prescription, I'm left with a bad taste in my mouth and a bit of mistrust in the conventional health care system. 'Next time I'm feeling ill', I think, 'I'll go back to that homeopath. They take me seriously because they gave me pills'.

And so the cycle goes on.... 

Hxxx