Benefits of homeopathy have been ‘substantially over-estimated’ by weak scientific trials, experts say
- Homeopathy is an alternative type of medicine based on dilution of substances
- But new analysis shows a significant number of homeopathy are unpublished
- Furthermore a quarter change their measured outcome before being published
- This researchers say, points to a real risk of positive reporting bias in the field
Benefits of homeopathy may have been ‘substantially overestimated’, researchers insisted today.
The 200-year-old ‘treatment’ has repeatedly been proven to be no more effective than a placebo.
But now a new analysis has dented its reputation even further, poking more holes in the current body of evidence surrounding the controversial practice.
Austrian experts found dozens of clinical trials testing homeopathic remedies remain unpublished, suggesting the findings may not have match the beliefs of the authors and weren’t released.
Furthermore, a quarter of ones officially logged altered their ‘main outcome’ before being unveiled — the scientific equivalent of moving the goalposts.
It essentially allows a homeopathic researcher to cherry-pick their question to match the data they have.
The Danube University team claimed their findings suggest the field of homeopathy has a ‘concerning lack of scientific and ethical standards’ and ‘reporting bias’.
Reporting bias is where a treatment may appear to work because only studies which show a positive result are published, creating a scientific echo chamber
Homeopathy was discontinued in the NHS in England in 2017 due to a lack of evidence for its effectiveness however it is still available privately
Revealed: The origins of homeopathy
Homeopathy was first coined in 1807 by German doctor Samuel Hahnemann, and focuses on three principles: like cures like, dilution, and ‘water remembers.’
Dr Hahnemann believed that medicine in his time was doing more harm than good, so he began to conduct experiments on volunteers and himself.
One such experiment included eating the bark of a cinchona tree, which was then used as a treatment for malaria. Scientists have since found that this bark contains quinine, an antimalarial drug.
After eating some of the bark, Hahnemann experienced symptoms which he likened to those of malaria, spawning the first principle ‘like cures like.’
The doctor thought that if a substance in large doses causes certain symptoms, it can be used in small doses to cure them.
According to the British Homeopathy Association, the remedies are used by over 200 million people worldwide to treat both acute and chronic conditions.
The team concluded the poor research practice they found ‘likely affects the validity of the body of evidence of homeopathic literature and may substantially overestimate the true treatment effect of homeopathic remedies’.
Homeopathy operates on a supposed logic that ‘like cures like’, so a substance that causes certain symptoms can be used to treat similar conditions.
For example, a homeopath might recommend a hay fever sufferer who has itchy and watery eyes takes a treatment involving onion compounds, which provoke the same reaction in people when cut.
But these so called ‘remedies’ are diluted with so much water that there is often none, or barely any, of the original substance left.
Some of the treatments can contain saliva from dogs with rabies, or even the urethral discharge of men with sexually transmitted disease gonorrhoea.
In the UK, a 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy found it was no better than a placebo.
And NHS bosses told GPs and other prescribers to stop providing it in 2017 because there was ‘no clear or robust evidence’ to support its use.
Yet homeopathy is still widely available privately and consultants can charge £125 for a consultation.
Die-hard advocates quote published studies claiming it is beneficial to patients.
Combing through international clinical trial registers, Dr Gerald Gartlehner and team found only 193 clinical trials had been performed. Only 90 were registered, however.
Meanwhile, nearly 38 per cent of the trials remain unpublished.
They also found homeopathy trials were also more likely to registered after they had started, and that a quarter of those published had different primary outcomes.
Primary outcomes are essentially what the researchers are aiming to prove during a trial, for example examining if a treatment reduces blood pressure.
The analysis was published in the journal BMJ Evidence Based Medicine.