10:23

RACGP on homeopathy, the Good Thinking Society, and Homeopathic Owl – O Rly?

The following is a transcript of Evidence, Please on The Skeptic Zone Podcast #346 {Permalink}.

This week, news about that continual thorn in our side, homeopathy!

First up, I’d like to read you a media release from the Royal Australian College of General Practicioners, which was picked up as a news story by several media outlets this week.

From racgp.org.au,

Homeopathy treatment not effective and should not be prescribed

3 June 2015

GPs should not prescribe homeopathic remedies for their patients and pharmacists should not sell or recommend the use of homeopathic products, according to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

Releasing its position statement on homeopathy, RACGP President Dr Frank R Jones said GPs practiced in evidence-based medicine and there was robust evidence homeopathy had no effect beyond a placebo as a treatment for various clinical conditions.

“Given this lack of evidence, it does not make sense for homeopathy products to be prescribed by GPs or sold, recommended or supported by pharmacists,” Dr Jones said.

The RACGP position statement maintains that homeopathic alternatives should not be used in place of conventional immunisation.

“It is irresponsible to claim that homeopathic vaccines are a proven alternative to conventional vaccination. The reality is that these alternatives do not prevent diseases or increase protective antibodies and there is no plausible biological mechanism by which these alternatives could prevent infection.

“Individuals and the community are exposed to preventable diseases when homeopathic vaccines are used as an alternative to conventional immunisation,” Dr Jones said.

Another risk of homeopathy is that people delay or avoid seeing a GP – exacerbating their condition through delayed care – and reject conventional medical approaches.

“Spurious claims made by homeopathic practitioners and retailers can mislead people about the effectiveness of conventional medicine and this can result in serious health consequences,” Dr Jones said.

The position statement also outlines that many private health insurers subsidise homeopathy through ‘extras’ cover when alternative evidence-based treatment methods are available.

“Whilst we appreciate and recognise the right of patients who may choose or seek homeopathy, unfortunately all taxpayers are funding homeopathy via the Federal Government’s private health insurance rebate,” Dr Jones said.

“The RACGP is concerned that health insurance premiums continue to rise as significant subsides are paid for homeopathy and other natural therapies. In 2013-14 health insurers paid out $164 million in benefits for natural therapies, an increase of almost 60% from 2010-11.”

Earlier this year the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) analysed the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy in treating a range of clinical conditions. It concluded that homeopathy produces no health benefits over and above that of a placebo, or equivalent to that of another treatment.

While all of this is really good – and an excellent public statement to be making to help the population become more aware of issues surrounding homeopathy… the fact that it doesn’t work, that something that doesn’t work is being sold in pharmacies, that something that doesn’t work is being included in taxpayer subsidised private health cover and is driving up premiums… I can’t help but feel a little stunned that doctors and pharmacists would ever need to be told not to recommend homeopathy. How anyone who has studied medicine – pharmacology in particular – could give a moment’s thought to even allowing patients to select homeopathic treatment without an explanation as to its lack of efficacy – let alone
recommend it – is quite beyond me.

Still, the RACGP’s position statement is, like the NHMRC’s findings, more weight coming down on homeopathy.

Homeopathy in pharmacies is one of my greatest bug bears. It’s easy for people to consider its existence alongside evidence based treatments to be an endorsement for its efficacy, particularly given the credibility of pharmacists.

One argument as to why pharmacies stock homeopathy is that they’re being run as businesses, and there’s a public demand for homeopathic products. Which is frustrating, as they’re businesses which we rely on for vital health information and products (and discount glitter nail polish, an integral item for my personal well being). Pharmacies are businesses, but
they’re also an essential service – one that most of us need to use from time to time, one through which we rely on the services of a university trained professional.

Accepting the business model though, makes me wonder whether part of the push for change could come from consumer demand. Perhaps one day we could get a large enough percentage of the public to say no to homeopathy… and if a pharmacy chain removes it from its shelves, reward them with our custom.

This is highly idealistic, I realise. In the meantime, we do have groups such as Friends of Science in Medicine lobbying for the removal of non-evidence based products from pharmacy shelves – you can see what they’re up to and if you’re so inclined, lend them your support by going to scienceinmedicine.org.au.

"Dilution" by xkcd

“Dilution” by xkcd – https://xkcd.com/765/

Across and up to the UK now, where the Good Thinking Society have been campaigning to have homeopathy struck off of the NHS – that’s the National Health Service, akin to Medicare down here, which funds homeopathic hospitals! The campaign has had a great success so far, with extensive media coverage and Clinical Commissioning Groups – local area groups which organise the delivery of NHS services – reassessing their support for homeopathy – some
announcing that they will no longer be funding such.

As part of the Good Thinking Society’s efforts to examine and publicise what’s going on with NHS funded homeopathy in the UK, our eminent friend Michael Marshall investigated precisely what’s being sold by homeopathic pharmacies which supply the NHS… and came across something rather bizarre… an owl remedy!

Freeman’s homeopathic pharmacy in Glasgow lists all sorts of weird and wonderful remedies on their website, including three different remedies labeled “Owl”! Marsh decided to find out more about the owl remedy, and called Freeman’s.

What followed was a slightly surreal conversation, in which the pharmacy assistant informed Marsh that the remedy was made from owl feathers, and was prescribed by homeopathic “doctors” and practicioners not for owl allergies, but for people who were taking on the characteristics of owls, such as… not sleeping.

The entire conversation is available as a YouTube video, I’ll put a link in the show notes, as it’s well worth a listen – and a watch.

During the conversation, the homeopathic pharmacy assistant stated that homeopathic owl was for doctors and practicioners to prescribe, and not sold over the counter – yet the Good Thinking Society was able to purchase it online without a prescription, nor a warning that one is required. Hmm.

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Discoveries such as this, while disturbing in a sense, are also incredibly useful. The strange combination of absurdity and bulldust in the homeopathic owl expose caught not only the attention of skeptics and the like on social media, but also that of the Daily Mirror, which ran a story on the Good Thinking Society’s work around homeopathy and the case of the
owl remedy. A huge well done to the Good Thinking Society!

And you know, if you find something similarly bizarre… pursue more information and consider going public! Weirdness can be an excellent way to draw public and media attention to pseudoscience.

Finally, here’s a fantastic tweet which caught my eye from Andy Lewis, whose Twitter handle is @lecanardnoir:

Too right!

You can read more about the Good Thinking Society’s amazing work at goodthinkingsociety.org.

Until next week, have a hoot of a time!

A transcript of this report with links has been posted at my blog, which can be found on evidenceplease.net.

World Homeopathy Awareness Week – Raising Awareness that Homeopathy is Bulldust!

Well, this week is rather special – it’s World Homeopathy Awareness Week!

First, a very brief primer on homeopathy. Homeopathy was founded in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, based on his postulation that “like cures like” – for example, a small amount of a stimulant, such as caffeine, is purported to help with sleep troubles. Homeopathic preparations are produced by “dynamisation” or “potentisation”, in which active ingredients are diluted with alcohol or distilled water, then “succussed” (a form of ritualistic vigorous shaking). The dilution process is repeated until the likelihood of a single molecule of the original ingredient being present in a bottle of homeopathic “remedy” is as close as can be to zero.

Homeopathic remedies are sold as liquids or sugar pills and can be found in health food stores, online shops and to my great disappointment, in pharmacies in Australia. Homeopathy is at times confused with herbalism, as it is included within the scope of “natural medicine”, thus it is worth noting that while herbal remedies contain active ingredients, homeopathic remedies contain no detectable trace of such. For more information, visit the 10:23 Campaign’s page, “What is Homeopathy?” 

 

Beginning on the 10th of April each year,coinciding with the birthday of Hahnemann, World Homeopathy Awareness Week (WHAW) has been established by the World Homeopathy Awareness Organization to coordinate global promotion of homeopathy by those who practice and advocate it. Simultaneously, WHAW has been embraced by critics of homeopathy as a fine time to raise awareness of the lack of plausibility behind the mechanisms used to create homeopathic “remedies”, and the lack of evidence that homeopathy has any physiological effect beyond that of a placebo.

This year, WHAW related discussion kicked off a couple of days early, as Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council released a draft of their information paper, “Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions“. The NHMRC is accepting feedback on this paper until May 26th, so if you wish to provide them with any feedback for consideration, details on doing so are available via the above link.

Admittedly, when I first heard that the NHMRC were conducting a review on homeopathy studies, I was flummoxed – I was familiar with the findings on homeopathy already, and it seemed akin to reviewing findings on whether the sky was blue, or whether water was… wet. However, more public awareness on homeopathy – and the findings that no credible evidence supports its efficacy – has been a great prompt for the media to get on board and for public discussion of homeopathy to increase.

In short, people are still investing their money and hope in products and treatments which have no plausible mechanism of action beyond a placebo. Pharmacies are still selling homeopathic products, in what I consider to be a terribly unethical case of lending false credibility. A small but important minority of general practitioners are referring their patients to homeopaths and naturopaths (some of whom include homeopathy in their practice). There are people who, heart-breakingly, eschew evidence based medicine in favour of homeopathy – as was seen in the tragic case of Penelope Dingle. As such, I believe that it is worth getting the word out, loud and clear, that homeopathy is a sham.

 

I’ve spotted a few fantastic reads during WHAW this year. First up, Ken Harvey has written a piece on The Drum titled “Homeopathy – We Can’t Have it Both Ways“, in which he discusses the fact that, while the NHMRC paper condemns homeopathy, other authorities still give it legitimacy, by accrediting the study of homeopathy, including it in health insurance plans and allowing it to be sold in pharmacies.

From the Good Thinking Society, here is a wonderful page on Homeopathy Awareness Week, with a list of twelve quick facts on homeopathy. The project director, Michael Marshall, explains the importance of the site and of awareness of homeopathy in his Guardian piece, “Homeopathy Awareness Can Make The World A Happier and Healthier Place“.

This week’s episode of The Skeptic Zone Podcast (permalink) has more information on homeopathy than molecules of active ingredients in a homeopathic dilution, and includes my first attempt at a podcast report (replete with awful jokes, such as the one I’ve just made), in which I cover a minor skeptical activism success on the Better Health Channel’s promotion of WHAW. After an impromptu letter writing and social media campaign last week, and in light of the NHMRC draft report on homeopathy, the Better Health Channel made the commendable decision to remove WHAW from their events calendar. If you’re not already a regular Skeptic Zone listener, I encourage you to give it a go this week – despite my cheesy lines, the show is great.

Speaking of humour, I’d like to provide two more links on which to end this post. They’re not to be taken seriously, but sometimes laughter is… the best medicine. (Sorry – I’ll see myself out).

How Does Homeopathy Work? (from the 10:23 Campaign)

List of scientifically controlled double blind studies which have conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of homeopathy (from RationalWiki)

10:23 Campaign Against Homeopathy – Antarctic 2011 (a short video via The Skeptic Zone, in which Dr Paul Willis puts himself on the line and takes a homeopathic overdose!)

2009-11-02-homeoComic by Luke Surl, shared under Creative Commons Licence