The random thoughts of a sceptical activist

1023

Falling trust in homeopathy

There’s an un-written rule — or at least there should be — that anything said in support of homeopathy cited by a homeopath or supporter should be taken with a large pinch of natrium muriaticum.

That’s not to say homeopaths will always be wrong or there won’t be some grain of truth in what they say, of course, but it will always bear a bit of investigation. There will frequently be more to it than meets the eye.

Take for example, a homeopath citing the meta-analysis Clinical trials of homoeopathy by Kleijnen et al. (1991). Nancy Malik summarises this paper thus:

Clinical Trials of Homeopathy (1991) FULL TEXT // 81 (77%) out of 105 RCT (1943-1990) shows statistically significant result for homeopathy and 15 out of 22 best quality studies are also statistically significant.

Out of 81, 5 out of 5 of the clinical trials for hay fever showed a positive result and 8 out of 10 trials looking at mental or emotional problems showed a beneficial effect, while 6 out of 7 trials for infection showed that homeopathy could effectively relieve the problem.

“Based on this evidence we would be ready to accept that homoeopathy can be efficacious, if only the mechanism of action were more plausible” and “the evidence presented in this review would probably be sufficient for establishing homoeopathy as a regular treatment for certain indications……..a conventional method would have been acknowledged with this amount of evidence”, the results are mostly favourable for homeopathy regarding the quality of trials.”

Glowing praise for homeopathy it would seem, but what she fails to mention is the conclusion the authors reached, quoted here in full:

Conclusions At the moment the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias. This indicates that there is a legitimate case for further evaluation of homoeopathy, but only by means of well performed trials.

Homeopathy pelletsSpot the difference. Malik does try to link to the paper (but not to an accessible copy of it), but how many will click on her link to check the veracity of what she says? Some other examples of conclusions homeopaths would rather you didn’t read can be found on the Discover Homeopathy website.

Anyway, the point is made: always check original sources to make sure claims made by homeopaths for homeopathy are complete and accurate.

Trustworthy

How much do people trust homeopathy? That’s difficult to know unless a survey is done asking that specific question. We could perhaps use the sales of homeopathic products as a proxy, but market surveys are complex things to do and tend to cost a lot on money. Mintel, for example, will sell you their market survey on homeopathic and herbal products in the US for a mere £2,466.89 (Excl.Tax), or their report Complementary Medicines – UK – December 2009 for just £1,750. Well beyond the reach of many, including me.

But the teaser for that last report does tell us:

Growth in the UK’s £213 million complementary medicines market [note: not specifically homeopathy] has gathered pace in the last two years. It is estimated to have grown in value by some 18% between 2007 and 2009 when Mintel last reviewed the industry.

We also know that the market for homeopathic and anthroposophic medicinal products in the EU exceeded €1 billion for third year in a row in 2011. It doesn’t tell us anything about the sales in the UK, but it’s still an interesting figure. Whither the cries of homeopaths that they have no money for decent trials? And we know there is plenty of scope to raise the money for trials if they really, really wanted to.

But homeopaths frequently like to use increasing sales figures in the mistaken belief that this somehow correlates with efficacy. Equally, sales figures are not a measure of trust: they tell only about the success of marketing and PR that they do about whether homeopathy works or whether people trust it.

But fortunately, there are some limited data available that answers that question about trust.

Twittering

In a recent Tweet, a dedicated homeopathy supporter claimed:

60% growth h’pathy mkt in Europe 1995-2005 Mintel est sales in UK to reach 46M pds 2012

When asked for a source of those figures, she replied:

Mintel, Global Global TGI Barometer — look them up

I did.

As I said, Mintel reports cost a lot of money, but I thought it would be interesting to see if I could find the Global TGI Barometer source.

A search shows that the one Global TGI (Target Group Index) Barometer that pops up regularly on homeopaths’ websites is the Global TGI Barometer, January 2008, Issue 33: The lure of alternative medicine. It’s this article that is cited frequently in support of homeopathy, eg:

British Homeopathic Association: The growing demand for homeopathy

A survey conducted by Global TGI in 2008 found 15% of the population of Britain trusted homeopathy.

Homeopathy manufacturer, Nelsons: 150 Facts About Homeopathy

57.  In India, alternative treatments, including homeopathy, are well established and integrated into the healthcare system, with 94 per cent of people saying that they have faith in alternative remedies.[8]

[8]  Global TGI Barometer, January 2008; Issue 33.

Dr Brian Kaplan: Homeopathy in perspective:

Homeopathy has never been so popular; currently 15% of the population of Britain trust it.1 Homeopathy is the fastest-growing form of complementary medicine and has experienced a growth of 44% since 2004.1 1. Global TGI Barometer, January 2008; Issue 33.

Homeopath, Paula Yates:

It is estimated that between 6 and 9 million people in the UK choose to use homeopathy (Source: Global TGI Barometer, issue 33 – Jan 2008).

Homeopath, Gill Marshall:

It is used by 15% of people in the UK, 27% of Germans and 40% of French people. (2)

(2) Global TGI Barometer January 2008 Issue 33: The lure of alternative medicine.

There are a couple of websites that seem to give most of the text of the article (eg here and here, but the links to the original source are broken), but none looked like the full article, so I asked the publishers, Kantar Media. Although the document is some six years old, they were kind enough to send me the full, original article: The lure of alternative medicine.

This was about a survey of 13 countries, finding out what proportion of people agree with the statement ‘I trust homeopathic medicine’: I trust homeopathic medicine This puts a rather dramatic perspective on the 15% figure for Great Britain.

Additionally, it’s clear that many of the statements made by homeopaths about this article are not supported by what the article actually says! I have to wonder if any of them actually read the article — it is only three-and-a-half pages long — or whether they were just parroting what others had said.

The article also says:

In many countries, particularly in Europe, consumers are less convinced. At 15% agreement, Britons are the least trusting of homeopathy, and only 1 in 10 say that they prefer alternative medicine. Even in Germany, the birth place of homeopathy, just 27% of people trust this kind of treatment. France is the European market in which people are most trusting of homeopathy.

Unfortunately, we can only speculate about the historical, cultural and political reasons for these marked differences, but maybe the reason for the figure for France is more obvious?

But now we know that one of the sources the homeopathy supporter cited did not substantiate the claims she made for the growth in homeopathy. No surprise there. Copying and pasting without engaging brain is an all too familiar gambit of homeopathy supporters — perhaps through ignorance or in the desperate hope that no one will bother to check… More likely, though, it can be attributed to a complete lack of curiosity on their part.

In decline

We already know that homeopathy in the NHS has been in steep decline for the last few decades: The decline of homeopathy on the NHS This could well indicate that homeopathy isn’t as unthinkingly accepted as it once was.

But the Global TGI Barometer data was from some six years ago — what about trust in homeopathy now? Although Kantar Media haven’t publicly published such a comprehensive survey since 2008, in 2013 they published a Factiod, a single page document Headache Remedies: East vs. West. In it, they were able to say:

TGI data shows that 43% of people in China agree with the statement ‘I trust homeopathic medicine’ compared to just 20% in the USA and 12% in GB.

It would have been good to see up-to-date figures for the other countries, but this does show that trust in homeopathy products in Great Britain has dropped by a fifth,  from 15% in 2008 to just 12% in 2013.

As more people find out what homeopathy is and how homeopathy works, we should not be surprised to see this figure drop even more.

Paying the price of homeopathic research

Do homeopaths’ claims that trials are too expensive and that they can’t afford them hold water?

Science is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results. Which part of that exactly do you disagree with?

— Dr Steven Novella

Homeopaths have an ambivalent attitude to research: they are quick to jump on any results they think support their pseudo scientific beliefs, yet any paper that shows homeopathy to be no better than placebo is denounced, usually with cries that the ‘homeopathic system of personalised, holistic medicine’ is just not suited to being tested using flawed ‘conventional’ double-blind randomised controlled trials (DBRCT). And sometimes Big Pharma tell lies.

But homeopaths have a problem: all advertising in the UK has to comply with the Advertising Standards Authority’s CAP Code and this rightly demands a high standard of evidence for any claim, regardless of whether it’s about how clean a soap powder makes your whites, how efficient double-glazed windows are or how much a skin cream reduces the appearance of wrinkles. So it is with homeopathy: high quality evidence is required. Continue reading

Stop this unscientific meddling

The exposé  by Prof David Colquhoun of the interference by the Department of Health — at the behest of homeopathy promoters — in the publication of impartial, scientifically-based information about homeopathy on the NHS Choices website has been covered by the Guardian and the Daily Mail this past week.

Damned by their own words, the DoH said in response to the draft submitted by the editors of NHS Choices that mentioned the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s comprehensive Evidence Check report on homeopathy:

Can we remove this statement? This report is really quite contentious and we may well be subject to quite a lot of challenge from the Homeopathic community if published.

The statement was removed. What NHS Choices were eventually told to publish was a biased sop to homeopathy, including a list of the main homeopathy trade bodies and a list of medical conditions homeopathy could, apparently, treat.

Andy Lewis, on his excellent website, The Quackometer, asked that we contact our MP over this to demand NHS Choices be allowed to replace this biased page with one that properly reflects the scientific consensus on homeopathy so that the public can make properly informed choices in their health care.

Below is our email to our MP. We urge all those concerned about the public being given unbiased information to write to your own MP — please feel free to use whatever you feel useful.

We are concerned to read that the Department of Health has been interfering with the content of the NHS Choices website to the detriment of the public’s ability to make informed choices about health care.

It was reported in the Guardian on 13 February (Prince’s charity lobbied government to water down homeopathy criticism) and in the Daily Mail on 15 February (Homeopathy charity run by Charles ‘cowed civil servants’ into supporting the therapy) that the NHS Choices website editor had been prevented from stating the lack of scientific evidence for homeopathy for fear of lobbying from the ‘homeopathy community’. This debacle came to light after a Freedom of Information request by Professor David Colquhoun.

As a result of this interference, the page on homeopathy as it stands now is in danger of misleading the public into thinking that homeopathy may be able to treat potentially serious medical conditions such as asthma, ear infections, high blood pressure and depression when there is no scientific evidence to suggest this is the case.

In his response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check report on homeopathy (which recommended removal of all NHS funding for homeopathy because of the complete lack of scientific evidence), the Secretary of State for Health stated:

10. In order for the public to make informed choices, it is therefore vitally important that the scientific evidence base for homeopathy is clearly explained and available. He will therefore engage further with the Department of Health to ensure communication to the public is addressed. His position remains that the evidence of efficacy and the scientific basis of homeopathy is highly questionable.

He also stated:

14. The Government agrees that, when looking at the evidence base for efficacy, it is important to focus on the most scientifically robust studies and evidence.

It is therefore incomprehensible and deplorable that the Department of Health believes it now acceptable to tell the public that homeopathy can be used to treat the following:

  • asthma
  • depression
  • ear infections
  • hay fever
  • other mental health conditions, such as stress and anxiety
  • allergies, such as food allergies
  • dermatitis (an allergic skin condition)
  • arthritis
  • high blood pressure

For such a highly respected, informative and authoritative source of sound medical information such as NHS Choices to have been forced by the DoH into publishing such erroneous information on homeopathy is disgraceful and unacceptable.

This can only lead to the public being mislead and potentially making ill-advised and dangerous health care decisions.

As we are sure you are aware, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has recently made clear that homeopathy is ‘rubbish’. The DoH needs to heed this advice and allow NHS Choices to completely re-write the page on sound scientific and evidence-based principles.

We also note that Anna Soubry recently stated to the House:

The Department [of Health] does not maintain a position on any particular complementary or alternative medicine treatments including homeopathy.

We therefore ask you to request that the Secretary of State for Health explain these actions and that he allow NHS Choices the freedom to ensure that the public can make the informed choice that are entitled to make based on sound scientific evidence and principles and not to have that distorted by vested interests.

We look forward to receiving your reply.

Thanks and best regards.

I’ll let you know what response we get.

The bitter sugar pill

In his Guardian article, Homeopaths offer to rebrand products as ‘confectionery’, Martin Robbins tells the story that, faced with being unable to sell their products as homeopathic medicines because they were unlicensed, a manufacturer offered to re-brand them as sweets. The irony of that won’t be lost on many, but what else has been going on?

…sceptics [are] posing as genuine members of the public…

Thanks to his FOIA request, we now know that the medicines regulator, the MHRA, told homeopathy manufacturers Helios and Ainsworths to discontinue the sale and supply of a number of their kits of homeopathic products because they contained homeopathic products that were not registered (under the HR scheme) or authorised (under the NR scheme) and because the names of the kits were not as had been registered with the MHRA.

McCarthy-style reporting, encouraged by the self-appointed detractors of homoeopathy…has protracted this decline [in the homeopathy industry]

These two issues are important: under the Medicines Regulations, individual homeopathic products have to be registered or authorised by the MHRA, and so do kits of these products, with the name of the kits agreed with the MHRA.

Helios and Ainsworths fell foul of the Medicines Regulations on both counts.

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That ‘neutral’ Swiss homeopathy report

What does the Swiss Government really think about homeopathy?

By Sven Rudloff and Zeno

Jump to Postscript

A lot has been made by homeopaths about the ‘neutral’ Swiss Government’s report and its unequivocal support of homeopathy. It’s been lauded by the luminaries of the homeopathic world as further proof — as if any was needed, of course — that homeopathic ‘medicines’ are superior in every way to those dangerous and expensive pharmaceutical drugs.

Arch proponent of homeopathy, Dana Ullman, proclaimed:

The Swiss government’s exceedingly positive report on homeopathic medicine

The Swiss government has a long and widely-respected history of neutrality, and therefore, reports from this government on controversial subjects need to be taken more seriously than other reports from countries that are more strongly influenced by present economic and political constituencies.

In late 2011, the Swiss government’s report on homeopathic medicine represents the most comprehensive evaluation of homeopathic medicine ever written by a government and was just published in book form in English (Bornhoft and Matthiessen, 2011). This breakthrough report affirmed that homeopathic treatment is both effective and cost-effective and that homeopathic treatment should be reimbursed by Switzerland’s national health insurance program.

The provisional reimbursement for these alternative treatments ended in 2005, but as a result of this new study, the Swiss government’s health insurance program once again began to reimburse for homeopathy and select alternative treatments. (Source, cached)

Ullman again:

this report from the Swiss government has confirmed the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of homeopathic treatment. (Source, cached)

The Society of Homeopaths:

Swiss scientists endorse homeopathy evidence

Report says homeopathic medicine is clinically effective

A comprehensive and authoritative research study by Swiss scientists has offered an unambiguous endorsement of the evidence base for homeopathy as a clinically effective system of medicine.

Their report, part of a Swiss government evaluation of complementary and alternative medicines, gives a massive boost to the growing body of research underpinning the therapeutic effects of homeopathic medicine. (Source, cached)

The Faculty of Homeopathy and the British Homeopathic Association:

Evidence for homeopathy builds

Long-awaited English translation of Swiss study endorses evidence for homeopathy

This important report addresses the evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathic therapy in everyday use (i.e. the real world), its safety and its cost-effectiveness.

The authors, Doctor Gudrun Bornhöft and Professor Peter Matthiessen, state: “There is sufficient evidence for the preclinical effectiveness and the clinical efficacy of homeopathy and for its safety and economy compared with conventional treatment.”

Following on from the initial publication of this report, a public referendum in Switzerland in 2009 supported the inclusion of homeopathy and other complementary and alternative medicines in the Swiss national health insurance, with 67% of the people voting in favour. Earlier this month, the Swiss government passed legislation to enact the referendum’s conclusion. (Source, cached and source, cached)

GP and homeopath Dr Andrew Sikorski:

In 2009 a Swiss national referendum voted in favour of complementary medicine being part of the public health service which is now covered by the obligatory public health insurance system. This decision was partly informed by the findings of the 2006 Health Technology Assessment report commissioned by the Swiss Government on the effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness of homeopathy in general practice. (Sourcecached)

Many other websites have echoed these sentiments, with many taking their lead from Ullman’s article and possibly placing far too much reliance on what he had to say, eg Swiss Government finds homeopathy effective and cost efficient (cached).

You’d think from all this that the ‘neutral’ Swiss Government had taken to homeopathy like the proverbial quacking duck to water.

Of course, to state in this context that the Swiss Government has a ‘widely-respected history of neutrality’ is to conflate political neutrality with scientific objectivity.

As usual, research of truly homeopathic proportions, misrepresentation and cherry picking are the order of the day.

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Changing times for homeopaths

Many websites of homeopaths are changing. Some as a direct result of being contacted by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and some, no doubt, because, now they are aware of the ASA’s rules, want to be responsible and abide by them.

I’ve been watching several websites change over recent months: some delete a few words here and there; some have had to make substantial changes; and some have yet to make the necessary changes.

One of the websites I’ve been watching is the one belonging to the Society of Homeopaths.

Their home page had this:

Homeopathy is an evidence-based medicine which offers holistic, individual and integrated treatment with highly diluted substances with the aim of triggering the body’s natural system of healing.

A few days ago, they changed it to say:

Homeopathy is a form of holistic medicine in which treatment is tailored to the individual.

Have they finally realised that it’s not ‘an evidence-based medicine’; that there is no robust scientific evidence (ie the kind required by the ASA to protect the public from misleading claims) that homeopathic sugar pills have any effect over placebo?

I doubt it, but sooner or later homeopaths have to realise that they have to abide by the same rules as every other advertiser: if you make a claim, you must have robust evidence to substantiate it.

If a double-glazing seller claims his windows use an alternative glass that works far better than ‘conventional’ glass, then we would — rightly — expect him to be able to back up that with good evidence. There cannot be one standard for, say, double-glazing sellers and different, lower standard, for homeopaths.

And so with the homeopaths or any other advertiser of alternative therapies. Indeed, there could be a case made for requiring an even higher standard of evidence for claims about healthcare made to an unsuspecting public.

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Dangerous homeopathy

It’s bad enough when homeopaths take good money from people, claiming they can cure their colds or clear up their eczema with sugar pills. It’s another thing entirely to claim to prevent or treat serious diseases with identical sugar pills.

But this is precisely what the BBC’s Newsnight programme discovered homeopaths were doing. Broadcast in January, Pallab Ghosh exposed the disgraceful behaviour of a north London homeopath and a homeopathic ‘pharmacy’ selling sugar pills as a malaria preventative.

Watch the whole sorry exposure, even if you’ve watched it before:

As Dr Simon Singh said on the programme:

Choice is fine as long as it’s based on accurate information. And the information that’s being given out by pharmacists, by celebrities endorsing homeopathy, by the NHS offering homeopathy — the implication here that homeopathy must be effective otherwise people wouldn’t sell it, profit from it or offer it in the high street. And I am utterly shocked that we have a woman here [Zofia Dymitr, Chairwoman of the Society of Homeopaths] saying that she’s not going to forbid her members from offering homeopathic prevention of malaria to the general public. There are people coming back from tropical countries with multiple organ failure having used homeopathy and yet this woman is not prepared to stop it.

I was here four years ago when Newsnight did your last investigation and BBC Scotland have done an investigation and BBC South West have done an investigation. The BBC are the only people regulating homeopathy at the moment, because the Society itself seems to be oblivious to its responsibility.

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Is there a Doctor in the clinic?

There are a lot of doctors out there, but it can be difficult to know which are properly qualified and registered medical practitioners and who are, well, just quacks.

It’s not really that much of a problem for most of us. If we’re feeling unwell, we make an appointment with our GP. If there is any doubt about their status, you can always verify they are registered with the General Medical Council (GMC) by checking their List of Registered Medical Practitioners (LRMP).

But there are so many other ‘doctors’ out there. Ignoring The House Doctor®The Car Doctor and others who have obviously got nothing to do with health, there are many who certainly like to give the impression they are proper doctors — and I have no doubt some of them think they really are.

Take homeopaths, for example.

A simple search of the business directory yell.com shows a large number of homeopaths using the title Dr. Of course, some of them are also medically qualified and on the GMC’s LRMP, but you don’t have to look far to find examples of non-medically qualified homeopaths calling themselves Dr. Again, I have no doubt many of them think they really are doctors and some may well have qualification that entitles them to prefix their name with Dr, but no one should be in any doubt of what they are.

In the UK, Dr is not a protected title: anyone with a suitable qualification can call themselves Dr so-and-so. This is in stark contrast to, say, chiropractors, which is a protected term and its use by anyone not registered with the General Chiropractic Council is illegal under the Chiropractors Act 1994.

Things, thankfully, are a bit stricter when it comes to advertising services to the public.

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Active ingredients: still none (hopefully)

While some of us were composing our considered responses to the MHRA’s consultation on homeopathy, supporters of the magic sugar pills panicked and urged friends and homeopaths to flood the MHRA with their ill-considered responses.

This orchestrated campaign was leaked last night and gave us all a good laugh.

It was obvious the writer of the original email either hadn’t read the MHRA consultation document or was just unable to understand it and her email no doubt scared many a homeopath to write desperate emails to the named official at the MHRA. Of course, everyone is perfectly entitled to respond and make their views known. It does help, though, if you have some basic understanding of the regulatory framework and what issues the MHRA was consulting on.

The panic email contained many errors, including this gem:

The practice of homeopathy by lay homeopaths is at stake, and if the MHRA changes the wording to the document mentioned below, we will …not be allowed to practice any longer.

The originator of the email appears to be the Administrator at a ‘school’ of homeopathy, so you would have thought she might have better understood the consultation.

Her assertion is — like homeopathy — nonsense: homeopaths are not about to be stopped selling their products. The consultation is about ending the privileged position some homeopathic products were inexplicably granted 30 years ago and about the warning labels on some of them. Of course, I have no idea why homeopaths would want to maintain the status quo…

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Active ingredients: None

That’s what all homeopathic ‘medicines’ should say on their labels because that is precisely what they contain: no active ingredients.

Saying anything different is misleading the public.

For various unfathomable reasons, we have the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) regulating a non-medicine and a non-healthcare product. They don’t really even regulate homeopathic products. Not in any way that properly protects the public.

In fact, they do the opposite: they give these sugar pills and potions the legitimacy of having MHRA licence numbers — just like real medicines — and ‘Government approval’. This misleads the general public who are unaware that homeopathy isn’t some ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ system of medicine. It isn’t a system of medicine at all.

The MHRA are currently asking the public about some aspects of their regulation, including what wording should be on some homeopathic products and this is an ideal opportunity to tell them what we think.

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