The Dark Ages for Natural Therapies?
Author Jon Gamble BA ND AD Hom
Thank you to Australian author and practitioner of homeopathy Jon Gamble for this article regarding the review by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Authority (NHMRC), of the evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy. The assessment of the evidence by the NHMRC, comprises an overview of homeopathy in treating a variety of clinical conditions in humans and a report on evidence submitted to the NHMRC prior to the commencement of the review.
No matter how well educated you are, if you begin an investigation with a position of prejudice, then your eyes will fall upon that evidence which supports your contention.
In Australia, we expect more from our top medical research body the NHMRC yet unfortunately this is what happened. The organisation began with a position paper which stated that it is unethical to practise homeopathy because there is no good evidence to support it, then they went about looking into the evidence. This happens even if you do not consciously ‘cherry pick’ the available evidence which supports your point of view.
If you begin with prejudice, you finish with prejudice.
The investigation has suggested that there are insufficient reliable clinical trials to support homeopathy and the NHMRC want homeopathy removed from the private health fund rebate system. What type of evidence are we talking about? It is the randomised controlled trial, which is the gold standard used in evaluation pharmaceutical drugs. Is this method suitable for evaluation effectiveness of pharmaceutical drugs? Yes, it’s probably the most reliable method. It is the so-called ‘Gold Standard’. Are homeopathic medicines pharmaceutical drugs? No.
When a group of people all take the same pharmaceutical drug, they may all have much the same result, eg, most people who take Paracetamol for headache will get some level of pain relief.
If we are using natural therapies in the form of homeopathy and we gave that same group of headache sufferers a homeopathic remedy for headache, let’s say Bryonia for example, most of those people would not get any pain relief, maybe one to two only would feel the benefit. So on face value you can construct the conclusion that homeopathy is not very effective at all. Certainly not in comparison to Pharmaceutical drugs.
The trouble with using randomised trials for research in homeopathy
The trouble with using randomised trials for homeopathy is that the human input in remedy selection has been taken out. When you come to see me for your headache I may prescribe you a different homeopathic remedy for your headache, because your headache is a frontal headache only, so Sanguinaria is the remedy which will help you. The next person has a headache only at the time of her monthly period, so I give her Sepia. That’s three different remedies for three headache sufferers. When using homeopathy, there’s no point dishing out the same remedy to all headache sufferers, because homeopathy only works when you individualise your prescription to the presenting symptoms. This is the opposite to pharmaceutical drugs which exert a strong physiological influence regardless as to what type of headache you have. So let’s not evaluate homeopathy using a model which is designed for pharmaceuticals.
Now if the NHMRC did a clinical trial that included the human elements of the prescription, that would be different. Let us look at the success of 20 patients who had migraine treatment from their GP, and another 20 patients who were prescribed an individual homeopathic remedy: now you would see a different result.
Did the NHMRC go to any clinics of homeopathy to see what results were being achieved? No.
Did the NHMRC carefully evaluate any of the great clinical trials which have been done in India or South America? No.
Did the NHMRC have anyone on their investigation panel who knows how to use homeopathy? No.
Now remember, the NHMRC is Australia’s top medical research body, which is entirely tax payer funded.
Homeopathy is the first modality of the Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) which the NHMRC is investigating. They also have in their sites other natural therapies, such as Naturopathy, Chiropractic. What’s it all about?
If we take a larger perspective, this is the trend we have seen in Australia over the last decade:
Most of the university courses which teach CAM, including homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic and osteopathy, have been shut down. Most of the small private colleges operating in the VET sector have also shut down. What was a blossoming industry in Australia is in the doldrums. Australia could have been a world leader in natural therapies/ CAM education and research. This is in part due to a strong lobby group called Friends of Science in Medicine, who have also had direct influence on the NHMRC.
This is an ominous sign.
What does the history of natural therapies tell us about the current trend?
Let’s think about true healing for people, using natural medicine and natural therapies. What kinds of ideas come to mind?
- It is easily available to anyone who needs it
- It is gentle medicine, using plants and minerals as they occur in nature.
- It is not denatured or altered significantly
- It is not patented into a synthetic formula
- It is gentle in the sense that side effects are uncommon
- Overdosing does not prove fatal
- In many cases, the healer is female
- There is no central authority which dictates who can use the medicine and how it might be used
- The use of this medicine, however, requires some level of human interaction. The healer will possess some degree of insight, intuition or empathy in regard to the patient.
These human elements of the healing relationship, that insight, intuition or empathy, of course cannot be codified, patented or prescribed by any central authority, since the human relationship that takes place is different for every patient.
In the Middle Ages the central hegemony was challenged by just such a ‘natural healing’ phenomenon. Sensing their potential loss of power, the male dominated Church banned all natural healers, who were labelled as witches and burned at the stake. Human intuition was not only seen as dangerous but a challenge to the central doctrinal views of health and sickness. In other words the central (male dominated) authority felt challenged by something it had no capacity to understand and about which it was quietly fearful.
The pharmaceutical cartel
Stepping aside from the politics of that time, the broader issues seem strangely familiar in the current environment. Now we still have a central hegemony, but this time it is the pharmaceutical cartel whose talons of influence stretch far wider than those of the Church. This institution is able to influence government policy on a very deep level. It funds all the medical training. It powers all the medical research and medical education. It creates its own acceptable levels of what is health and sickness by establishing arbitrary reference ranges on pathology tests, which require life time pharmaceutical intervention once that level is reached even though there may be no actual sickness present in the patient (statin drugs and aspirin for example). It is expensive and not accessible to everyone (most of the developing world cannot afford it) and in Australia it is able to maintain its excessive profits by convincing the federal government to subsidise it via the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
Detractors of the pharmaceutical hegemony; again many of whom are female; are no longer burned at the stake: they are slowly squeezed out. Practitioners of homeopathy/ natural medicine/ natural therapies, not only in Australia but across Europe, are closing their doors because of government over-regulation and exclusion from the public health system. In Australia, the latest squeeze is to exclude practitioners who use homeopathy from being able to provide patients with their already meagre private health fund rebates.
In more recent times, the sanctity and privacy of practitioner/patient relations are being violated by certain sections of the media on the lookout for a ‘good story’. Journalists, posing as bogus patients, attempt to draw out what they need from the unsuspecting practitioner. Cyber bullying by vested interest groups is rife, as are personal social media attacks and website hacking. As in history, most of these interest groups are run by men, and most of the attacks are towards female practitioners. These behaviours, something no reasonable person would ever condone in the school yard, appear to occur without concern or rebuke. Of course, it is an old trick: if you can attack individuals and make them appear as ‘quacks’, then you can divert focus away from the fundamental issues.
We are slipping back into the Dark Ages of Medicine
The objective of the pharmaceutical cartel is to squeeze out all opposition. The cartel does not exist for the benefit of mankind, nor to improve people’s health. It’s highest objective is to return the best possible profit to its shareholders, through whatever means legally, though not ethically, available to it. You might say we are slipping into the Dark Ages of Medicine, where freedom of choice is being slowly undermined, and those essential human elements of true healing, insight, intuition, empathy, are undervalued, sometimes shunned. These elements are absolutely excluded from the double blind or randomised clinical trials, which are designed for evaluating what effect pharmaceutical drugs have on human populations. These human elements are dismissed as ‘anecdotal’ by the hegemony. For anecdotal, read ‘unable to be duplicated in a random group using the same medicine’, despite the positive health result achieved for the ‘anecdotal’ patient in the consultation.
These anecdotal patients save the federal health budget millions of dollars every year, by choosing their own method of self care outside the mainstream medical system. They are not necessarily brave people for taking on the hegemony, they are frustrated because they have found no solution to their health problem in the mainstream medical system. They are not prepared to accept the concept of ‘symptom management’, in other words daily pharmaceutical drugs to reduce symptoms, and wish to investigate fundamental causes of their illness with the aim of becoming free of dependence on any medicine, whether it be pharmaceutical or natural.
The detailed history taken during a homeopathy consultation, usually a whole hour in the first visit, often reveals what the causes are in the patient’s timeline. Sometimes, less well known specialised pathology tests assist in determining that cause. Once causes are clearly identified, treatment plans are more reliable, and the patient begins their path back to full health.
You’ll have to learn to live with it
Last, practitioners of CAM, homeopathy in this case, deserve some respect. It is a difficult area in which to work, since patients who choose it usually have an intractable health issue which has evaded diagnosis or reliable treatment. They may have been told ‘you’ll have to learn to live with it’ or ‘just manage your stress better’ or ‘we’ll try you on antidepressant’ all of which are often euphemisms for ‘we don’t know what is wrong with you’ or ‘there is no further treatment option available to you’. For a practitioner to take on patients in this category, requires an open mind and a good deal of determination. It also requires some conviction on the patient’s part that there is an answer to be found if one looks in the right place.
What can you do to protect your freedom of choice to be able to continue to use homeopathy (or other natural therapies)?
Let the Australian federal Health Minister know what you think: here are some of the points you might want to cover:
- I choose to use homeopathy myself, and under no pressure from anyone else, because it works for my health complaint
- I have a chronic health condition which is helped by homeopathic medicine. It’s absurd to think that homeopathy is nothing better than placebo, because all the other modalities and treatments I have tried would have had a placebo effect on me too, and they did not
- If homeopathy is only placebo, how come it works on babies and animals?
- I self fund my own health care, because homeopathy is outside the medicare system. That saves the federal health budget lots of dollars in consultations and PBS drugs. It therefore makes no sense to take away the meagre private health fund rebate that I get, which will further discourage people from using CAM and increase the burden on the federal health budget.
Please express your thoughts about the NHMRC review and your desire to continue to use Homeopathy in Australia by writing to:
The Hon. Peter Dutton MP
Minister for Health
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Canberra ACT 2600
Read more about the cost effectiveness of homeopathy in a report written by the Swiss Government.