Wednesday, December 14, 2005


'New study is boost to homeopathy' trumpets the BBC News headline on 21 November. According to the pull quote from Dr David Spence, 'These results clearly demonstrate the value of homeopathy in the NHS'.

The news release from the British Homeopathic Association is even more upbeat, claiming that 'Homeopathy improves health of 70 per cent of patients in hospital study' and quoting Dr Kim Jobst as saying that 'These are response rates with which any orthodox NHS medical health provider or pharmaceutical company would be justly pleased' .

Homeopathy, according to the British Homeopathic Association's website, ' works on the principle that "like treats like". An illness is treated with a medicine which could produce similar symptoms in a healthy person. The active ingredients are given in highly diluted form.. Prescribing is based on all aspects of a patient's condition. The patient's personality and lifestyle are important' (3). Critics say that the process of dilution with water means, in the British Homeopathic Association's own words, that 'it is highly unlikely that any single molecules of the original substance remain' in a given dose. The mechanism by which homeopathy is supposed to improve a patient's health remains mysterious.

Dr Kim Jobst is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, which published the new study, a long-term observational study of over 6000 patients attending Bristol Homeopathic Hospital over six years (4). At each visit following the initial consultation, they were asked if they felt worse (or slightly worse, or much worse), better (or slightly or much better) or felt there had been no change. Only 23 per cent said there had been no change, with a total of 3.1 per cent feeling worse. Just over 50 per cent reported feeling 'better' or 'much better'.

But is this really conclusive proof that homeopathic treatment works? Every person in the trial had agreed to be referred to the homeopathic hospital, so all of them started with some belief that homeopathy could help them. There is no indication of how patients who had stopped attending felt about the treatment - and, let's face it, if you felt a treatment wasn't working, would you go back and say so, or would you just stop going? Especially in Bristol, where admitting you'd hurt a homeopath's feelings is the social equivalent of wearing fur at a vegetarian dinner.

More fundamentally, the study had no control group - that is, there is nothing against which to measure the results of the homeopathic treatment. It's as if you had a theory that feeding children nothing but cheese made them grow taller, so you fed all your children cheese, measured them after a year and said 'There - all of them have grown taller - proof that cheese works!'

Compare this to the standard of testing that we would expect for a new drug. A pharmaceutical company that wanted to put a new treatment on the market would first have to prove, not only that it was reasonably safe and that they were capable of manufacturing it to consistent levels of quality, but also that it worked. Tests would have to show, Richard Ley of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) (5) tells me, that 'there is a scientifically measurable improvement in the patient's condition. A double-blind trial is very frequent, when neither the subjects nor the researchers know which is the placebo (6), so they cannot be influenced in their reading of the condition by their belief in the treatment'.

Much more here


Parents who give their sleeping babies dummies [pacifiers] during their first year of life cut the risk of cot death by more than 90 per cent. A study has found that using a dummy also seemed to counteract other factors linked to increased risk of sudden death, such as sleeping face-down or on their side, or parental smoking. The findings suggest dummies provide a much bigger protective effect than previously thought. However, dummies remain controversial.

Experts have warned previously that while dummies may reduce SIDS deaths, that benefit must be weighed against potential detrimental effects, including problems with breastfeeding and increased ear infections.

For the latest study, published online yesterday by the British Medical Journal, Californian researchers compared the sleep habits of 185 babies thought to have died from SIDS with 312 randomly selected other infants. The study found that using a dummy was associated with a 92per cent lower risk of death, regardless of the baby's sleeping position. Thumb-sucking was also associated with a 57 per cent lower risk. The authors of the study said the findings could not prove dummies caused the reduction, but the protective effect might stem from the bulky handle of dummies, which might help prevent suffocation by preventing the airway being blocked by soft bedding...

However, Terry Dwyer, one of Australia's leading experts on SIDS and director of Melbourne's Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, cautioned that the study was less relevant to Australia because advice that babies should sleep on their backs had been followed much more widely here than in the US. Ensuring a correct sleeping position remained the priority, he said. Fewer than 5 per cent of Australian babies now slept in other positions, and SIDS deaths had plunged from about 500 a year in 1991 to about 70. "We have already achieved this big effect - we do not need to look for alternatives the way they (the Americans) are," Professor Dwyer said.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL hospitals and health insurance schemes should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the very poor and minimal regulation. Both Australia and Sweden have large private sector health systems with government reimbursement for privately-provided services so can a purely private system with some level of government reimbursement or insurance for the poor be so hard to do?

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