This site is intended for health professionals only

At the heart of general practice since 1960

Read the latest issue online

Gold, incentives and meh

Homeopathy for cancer is nothing more than placebo

Contrary to many media headlines, the latest evidence on homeopathic remedies for cancer show they are either placebo or not actually true homeopathy in the first place.

Contrary to many media headlines, the latest evidence on homeopathic remedies for cancer show they are either placebo or not actually true homeopathy in the first place.

Recently a new Cochrane review was published entitled "Homeopathic medicines for adverse effects of cancer treatments".

It included 8 studies with a total of 664 patients and "found preliminary evidence in support" of homeopathy for alleviating the symptoms of cancer patients. The authors cautioned, however, that the "trials need replicating".

The lay press reported extensively on this new review – a Cochrane review of anything as controversial as homeopathy is always ‘big news'. The tone of these articles was extremely mixed. Some journalists seemed to proclaim that homeopathy is now evidence-based, while others were more sceptical.

As I see it, there are numerous problems with this review. Here are just some that stick out like a sore thumb.

1. A total of 8 trials with 664 patients on such a very broad topic is nothing to write home about – hardly a credit to the homeopathic research community and certainly no sound basis for clinical decisions.

2. Most of the studies were methodologically very weak and therefore unreliably over-optimistic in their conclusions.

3. As the authors state, independent replications are lacking but would be an essential prerequisite for any practical recommendations.

4. The only two remedies that generated somewhat promising results were not "homeopathic" in the way you and I understand it. They contained enough molecules to cause pharmacological effects. I can, for instance, produce a homeopathic "mothertincture" of Aspirin and would be entitled to call this a homeopathic remedy, while, in fact, it is pure Aspirin.

5. The remedies in question were also not "homeopathic" in the sense of relying on the ‘like cures like' principle. So neither of the two main principles of homeopathy (like cures like, and high dilution) were being adhered to.

6. Crucially, there were serious suspicions of conflicts of interest.

As it happens, I was one of the reviewers of this article for the Cochrane Collaboration. In this function, I pointed out that one of the authors now works for the very company that produces one of the two remedies deemed to be effective in this review.

I also was aware of a further financial conflict which, in the draft, was not declared. The review may therefore have been systematic, but was it also independent?

All these caveats add up to my conclusion which is far less optimistic than the one by the authors. I think, this review confirms what virtually all previous reviews of homeopathy have indicated: homeopathic remedies, if highly dilute (as in the tradition of this form of healthcare), are placebos.

Distracting from this fact may help the struggling homeopathic hospitals or the homeopathic industry, but not our patients.

Professor Edzard Ernst Recent posts

Do complementary and alternative therapies do more harm than good? 20 April 09
Don't let your practice become an evidence-free zone 15 April 09
Natural doesn't mean safe. And CAM is neither 06 April 09

So-called 'integrated medicine' is disturbing nonsense 30 March 09
Why 'belief' in complementary medicine is misguided 23 March 09

Rate this article 

Click to rate

  • 1 star out of 5
  • 2 stars out of 5
  • 3 stars out of 5
  • 4 stars out of 5
  • 5 stars out of 5

0 out of 5 stars

Have your say