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Homeopathy “Tricks You” Into Feeling Better? *Facepalm*

November 17, 2010 1 comment

Homeopathy is a form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine which has been largely discredited by the medical community. At its core, it is the belief that by diluting a substance to extremely small amounts, often until none of the active ingredient remains in the final product, makes the remedy more potent.

It makes no sense, and it doesn’t work. Yet because of tradition and some unfortunate legislation in 1938 in the United States, Homeopathy is still around.

A study was published earlier this week in the journal Rheumatology. Some news outlets are saying that the outcome shows that homeopathy “tricks you” into feeling better. This made me feel like poor Captain Picard here.

The study examined 5 groups of patients suffering from Rheumatoid arthritis. It split these participants into 5 groups:

  1. Those that received consultation and individualized treatment from a Homeopath
  2. Those that received consultation and complex treatment from a Homeopath (complex treatment is giving the patient a group of standard homeopathic remedies which are not tailored specifically to the patient).
  3. Those that received consultation from a Homeopath but given a placebo.
  4. Those that received no consolation and given complex treatment.
  5. Those that received no consolation and given a placebo.

The groups were blinded as to whether they received a placebo or a real treatment, but obviously you couldn’t blind them to whether or not they received a consultation.

I won’t go into all the data analysis or statistics, but the results eventually state that there was no difference between the placebo treatment and homeopathic treatment, which is not surprising.

However, the authors go on to assert that there was a significant difference between those that received a consultation and those that didn’t, and that this is evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy.

From the Telegraph:

Dr Sarah Brien, the study’s lead author, said that while previous research had suggested homeopathy could help patients with rheumatoid arthritis, the study provided the first scientific evidence to show such benefits were “specifically due to its unique consultation process”.

There are a few problems with this. The first is that the study is fairly small, therefore the power of their results is not high enough to make any broad stroke conclusions about the efficacy of homeopathy.

Second, the group which received a consultation was not adequately compared to anything. Comparing a homeopathic consultation to no consultation, and then claiming that homeopathy made these people feel better is not a sound conclusion. The authors should have compared the group receiving a homeopathic consultation to a group which received some other form of personal consultation or experience, like speaking with a medical doctor or hell, even a motivational speaker!

Steven Novella gives a good explanation on Science-Based Medicine about the Hawthorne effect which can have a significant impact on a study. Having the personal experience of speakin to a person may make for a better patient outcome, but it certainly does not prove any efficacy of homeopathy itself.