HOMEOPATHY: WHAT IT IS
Homeopathy is a system of medicine that is made from traces of plant, mineral, and organic ingredients. These medicines are prepared by a pharmacological process called potentization. This process involves consecutive dilutions of a natural ingredient in some medium, usually water. The strength of the potency is inversely proportional to the number of dilutions (Ullman 1995). There is no physical trace of the original ingredient after the process is completed. A single remedy has the name of the original ingredient. The remedy can be taken orally in a liquid base or as a sugar pill. Modern homeopathic companies also produce remedies as ointments, lotions, eye drops, syrups, and sprays.
A German physician named Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) founded homeopathy. He derived the term from the Greek words "homoios" and "pathos". Homoios is Greek for similar and pathos is Greek for suffering. The principle theory of homeopathy was previously described by Hippocrates in ancient Greece. Mayans, Chinese, Greeks, Native American Indians and Asian Indians used this method of healing well before Hahnemann coined the phrase, homeopathy. Hahnemann was credited with making this principle theory into a systematic medical science (Ullman 1997).
The principle belief of homeopathy is that like cures like, also known as the law of similars. This means that the same substances that cause illness and disease are used to cure it. The systematic provings of natural substances as homeopathic remedies are found in the Materia Medica. This literature is a detailed collection of reactions to substances in a healthy person. Therefore, homeopaths can prescribe remedies based on your symptoms.
Homeopathy is a highly individualized form of treatment. The homeopathic perspective is that there are no diseases, only diseased people. The basis of this perspective stems from the idea that we all experience disease in different ways. It is too limiting to diagnose a person with a specific disease and expect one form of treatment to work on everyone. Therefore, homeopaths prescribe medicines that take into account both physical and psychological symptoms each person experiences. Homeopathy individualizes treatment to a person's unique pattern of symptoms.
"Homeopathy has a highly systematic, rigorous method of investigating its medicine, using human subjects as the sounding board to understand the healing direction of various plant, mineral and animal substances" (Hershoff 2000). It is not known what the precise mechanism of healing is. It is difficult to prove its effectiveness through contemporary scientific methods. Researchers in the Lancet and British Medical Journal conducted studies that prove effectiveness of Homeopathy, however they cannot explain them through the views of current biology (Hershoff 2000). Researchers at CalTech have discovered magnetic particles throughout the human brain. They speculate that dilutions create a higher level of the electromagnetic field, thus triggering the defense mechanisms of the body (Ullman 1995). There is no direct scientific evidence to prove, or disprove, why homeopathy is effective.
"First, do no harm", was Hippocrates famous passage for medical practitioners. Homeopathy, as a system of medicine, is considered highly safe. Homeopathic theory states that taking random remedies will not cause any harm. It is hypothesized that only the correct remedy will interact with the brain to trigger the healing response. Modern medicine fails in this aspect with upwards of 200,000 deaths caused by prescription drugs according to the Journal of the American Medical Association in the early 90's.
WHO IS USING IT AND WHY?
Homeopathy is popular in Great Britain. It has been used to treat the Royal Family since the 1830's. Studies from the New York Times show that the number of visits to homeopathic physicians is increasing 39% per year. A questionnaire of 268 patients in England reported some insight into why they use Homeopathy. One of the responses included "positive valuation of complimentary treatment" (Furnham 1996).
The general attitude towards homeopathy is evident in their classification of homeopathy. They use the term complementary medicine, instead of alternative medicine (Hershoff 2000). Therefore, the terminology implies that it is accepted as a growing part of mainstream healthcare. On the other hand, alternative medicine implies that it is a separate entity from mainstream healthcare. Further homeopathy receives positive attention in the media. The Royal Family has been under its treatment for over a hundred years. Also, British Olympic Teams claimed that a homeopathic (Arnica) ointment was their secret weapon.
The attitude of British healthcare professionals towards homeopathy is more positive than in the United States. A British Consumer Organization survey concluded that 70% who had tried homeopathy were cured or improved by it. A study in the London Times showed that 42% of surveyed physicians refer patients to homeopaths. A survey published in the British Medical Journal noted that out of 100 recently graduated British physicians, 80% expressed an interest in being trained in homeopathy, acupuncture or hypnosis. This attitude may in part be due to the changes in organization of homeopathic doctors in Great Britain. They wanted to gain credibility in the general population, government and orthodox medical professionals. They acquired a number of professional properties in the process enhancing their legitimacy (Cant 1995).
Another study reported some motivations for using homeopathy. They included control over treatment, lack of personal care and waiting lists for treatment (Ernst 2000). The British National Health Service (NHS) has some features that correspond to the motivations for using homeopathy. The NHS suffered from underfunding and a lack of resources. This leads to limitations on treatments and patients turn to homeopathy for a sense of control. Also the limited resources lead to the waiting lists for treatment. Many seek homeopathy as an alternative to be treated at once. Also, studies reported regional inequalities and class differences in treatment. General Practitioners spend more time with upper class patients (Gabe 2001). Therefore, much of the population does not receive adequate attention. They may then seek homeopathic doctors for the individualized care that Homeopathy requires.
ATTACKS AGAINST THE PRACTICE
Homeopathy was introduced in the United States in the late 1820's by German immigrants. It flourished for about a hundred years and by the turn of the century there were over 100 hospitals, 143 societies, and over 15,000 practitioners (Rogers 1997). After this period, the popularity of homeopathy begins to decline. Its decline is partly due to the American Medical Association. The theories of modern medicine and western views were contrary to the principles of homeopathy. The rise of scientific medicine eventually led to a single model of medical practice. "Medicine focused solely on the internal environment (the body), largely ignoring the external environment" (Conrad). The AMA successfully secured a monopoly and had an unrivaled professional dominance.
The attitudes of the United States government also reflect doubts in homeopathic treatments. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refused to acknowledge homeopathic remedies as effective drugs. Instead, they created standards listed in the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States (HPUS). This was not a sign of acceptance by the government. It was instead a method to take action against possibly dangerous products masquerading as homeopathic medicine (Rogers 1997). The government passed licensing concerns to the states. There are only three states with homeopathic licensing boards. Therefore, there is no national standard for homeopathic practitioners. The ultimate decision is left up to the state, which is not always good for Homeopaths. North Carolina Board of Medical Examiners revoked the license of a homeopath concluding that he was "failing to conform to the standards of acceptable and prevailing medical practice" (NCAHF 1994).
The National Council Against Health Fraud in the United States issued a recommendation for consumers to avoid purchasing homeopathic products and avoid consultations with homeopathic doctors (NCAHF 1994). Similar organizations are skeptical because there is no scientific evidence of how homeopathy works. Studies from the British Medical Journal have proved rates of effectiveness through randomized, double blind placebo controlled studies (Taylor 2000).
The attitudes of American doctors are vastly different from British doctors. American doctors lead attacks against homeopathy. They have published several critical works on the practice of homeopathy. They attribute the alleged effectiveness of homeopathy to several reasons. They claim that they would have been cured anyway, diseases are cyclical, placebo effect, and false psychological perceptions (Barrett 2000). It is hard for consumers of medical care to ignore the attitudes of the highest regarded profession in the US, doctors.
About the Article
Excerpt from a research project written in part by Sumit Sarkar, Hmedicine.com into the Sociology of Medicine, North Carolina State University.