Professor Edzard Ernst recognises the achievements of the German doctor who invented homeopathy – but not what he is most famous for.
UK homeopaths are currently celebrating their annual ‘Awareness Week’. However, I imagine that, this year, the occasion might turn out to be a rather sombre occasion.
Recent news was not good for homeopaths:
• The House of Commons recommended discontinuation of NHS-funding
• The BMA likened homeopathy to ‘witchcraft’
• The Foundation of Integrated Health, a powerful protector, folded as police started investigations for fraud and money laundering
• The evidence that homeopathic remedies might work clinically is getting weaker
• Prominent British comedians have started taking the ‘homeopathic Mickey’
To buck this trend of gloom and doom, I will surprise my readers with a more cheerful, celebratory note on homeopathy.
In my view, Samuel Hahnemann, the German doctor who invented homeopathy about 200 years ago, is a man who should be celebrated.
His primary achievement is not to have developed homeopathy. His true achievement is that, in the course of doing this, he has shown us how important non-specific effects – often also called the ‘art’ of medicine – are in terms of getting patients better.
To put it bluntly, Hahnemann has taught us that patients can improve even when we give them nothing but placebos.
Sadly, his achievement has not been fully recognized, least of all by homeopaths.
Confronted with the overwhelmingly negative results from placebo-controlled RCTs, homeopaths show us mountains of observational data demonstrating that patients do improve after all. The reason, they conclude, is that RCTs are inadequate tools for testing homeopathy.
Correct data, I guess, but wrong conclusion, I’m sure.
What these studies really show is, I think, quite obvious. Empathetic encounters with sufficient time do have positive health effects – a lesson that all clinicians should remember. And a good reason to celebrate, not homeopathy but its ‘inventor’.
Professor Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at Peninsula Medical School
Professor Edzard Ernst