In February 2013, my friend Nancy and I delivered a Newcastle Skeptics in the Pub talk entitled Homeopathy: Where's The Harm? As a follow up to this, we've decided to write a series of blog posts about a number of points we covered in the talk. Here is the first:
Doctor's appointments: often you feel like you're in and out before you know it, and they can't get you out the door quick enough. They have a target number of minutes to spend with each patient, and sometimes you can feel like they don't have as much time as you'd like to discuss all the things you want to with them.
There is, then, one aspect of homeopathic practice which can be superior to that of conventional medicine: the consultation. A homeopath might spend an hour or more assessing each individual, not just asking about particular symptoms but about their personality as well, how they think and feel about the world. I've never been to see a homeopath, but I'd imagine this is really valuable to a patient, particularly those with minor mental health complaints. I know myself that when I've been to see a good GP who I feel has really listened to me, I leave feeling a bit better already.
I suspect that the consultation itself may be part of what provides benefit to patients, rather than the sugar pills that are given out at the end of it. I'm not aware of any evidence that compared individualised homeopathic treatment to the OTC stuff though, which would be the only way to tease out and quantify any benefit from the consultation.
So what's the problem here? If a consultation with someone who appears to listen to you and care makes you feel better, where's the harm in that? The sort of subtle, indirect harms that we'll be discussing in this series of posts are often theoretical and would be very, very difficult to assess via hard, clinical evidence, so you'll have to bear with me while I discuss them with you and see if they make sense at the end of it. Consider the following story:
Imagine I'm quite an anxious person (in actual fact I am, so it doesn't take that much imagining to those who know me). Imagine I'm particularly anxious at the moment because I maybe have a public speaking event (something like Skeptics In The Pub, say!) to deliver in a few week's time. I might be finding it hard to sleep, I find I'm worrying about it quite often, and getting some physical symptoms- my heart is beating quite fast at times, say, and my stomach hurts at times, but it's nothing too serious.
I go to visit a homeopath (admittedly, this would be an unlikely thing to do if I was actually talking about myself) who takes time to discuss with me my problems. I get on well with them, and feel like they are really listening to me. During the discussion, I find that vocalising my anxieties helps me to rationalise them and my fears are allayed somewhat. Just the act of talking about it makes me feel better- in other words, the homeopath is delivering a talking therapy service to me. By the end of the consultation, I'm already feeling more in control of my anxieties, yet I'm still given some tablets to take home, and I dutifully follow the instructions I'm given.
As I've discussed elsewhere, there is a stigma about mental health issues. This also, unfortunately, extends to talking therapies too. Its quite likely that some people would be happier to declare "I'm seeing a homeopath" than "I'm seeing a counsellor" in front of their friends or acquaintances. The handing over of the sugar pills at the end of the consultation will no doubt suggest the talking bit is more "justified", and they can convince themselves that they're not mad, or the sort of weak person who would have to resort to a talking therapy. And thus, the stigma is reinforced. Talking therapies shouldn't be something to be ashamed of. You don't need some inert sugar pills to justify and hide the fact that, now and then, you just need to be able to talk to someone about your problems or feelings.
There are wider issues with this kind of thing too. The visit to the homeopath has made me feel better. I've been to see someone, left with some pills in my hand, and I've improved, reinforcing the fact that I feel better when given something to take. Let's say that in the next few months, I feel a bit rubbish because I've had a bit of a cold and I'm left with a cough that's been there for a couple of weeks. I go to see my Dr, who tells me that my chest is clear, and the cough should clear up of its own accord. However, I've expected to get something out of the visit- I don't want to leave the surgery with no pills in my hand, as I know that last time I left a consultation about my health I was given pills at the end of it and I felt better. It's left to the Dr to explain to me that I don't need antibiotics, and this can be a notoriously difficult thing to do. Some Drs might relent and give me a prescription for an antibiotic, contributing to the catastrophic situation we're in now with antibiotic resistance. If the Dr doesn't give me a prescription, I'm left with a bad taste in my mouth and a bit of mistrust in the conventional health care system. 'Next time I'm feeling ill', I think, 'I'll go back to that homeopath. They take me seriously because they gave me pills'.
And so the cycle goes on....