Homeopathy and Anecdotes
In the Herald today, a letter to the editor from a Mr Barry Davis was published regarding an article about a recent scientific report on the evidence regarding homeopathy published by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council: Effectiveness of Homeopathy for Clinical Conditions: Evaluation of the Evidence
The report evaluated the evidence regarding homeopathic treatment of several conditions, and drew the following conclusion:
The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans.
This letter to the editor, given the title “Homeopathic treatment”, mostly took the form of an anecdote. As far as I am aware letters to the editor are not published online, so here it is in its entirety:
I strongly disagree with your Saturday article on homeopathy. After having open-heart surgery for a faulty valve, I had a series of transient ischaemic attacks (mini strokes).
This resulted in seven visits to hospitals, totalling 42 days, numerous tests and scans, and two outpatient visits. The doctors told me they had no idea what was causing the strokes.
If the cause is not found, and treated, it could lead to a full stroke.
A relative, who has a PhD in chemistry and a diploma in homeopathy, took an interest in the problem. She recommended a homeopathic treatment, and in the last year, whenever I have felt an attack coming on, I have taken two of her pills and sat down, and the attack has stopped.
The only time in the last year that I have had an attack is when I twice failed to carry the pills.
Five years ago, I had a problem with recurring sore throats and congestion – this was also cured by homeopathic treatment.
I do not criticise the doctors or the hospitals – they tried and could not find the solution – but I firmly believe the medical profession and alternative medical practitioners should work in parallel, and each recognise the other.
Citing anecdotes seems to be a common way to defend modalities such as homeopathy, which are not supported by rigorous evidence. Unfortunately, personal stories can often be much more convincing than they should be. I am sending a letter of my own to the editor of the Herald in response to this one.
As I can’t be sure if it will be published, or if sections will be removed (although I’ve tried to keep it brief), I will publish it fully here as a rebuttal to the strategy of attempting to defend homeopathy against this report by citing personal experience.
There was once a time when medicine was based on personal anecdotes such as that of your correspondent Barry Davis. This philosophy gave rise to such false ideas as the four humours and ineffective and harmful treatments like bloodletting, for which there was no shortage of anecdotes.
It is only with the advent of medical science, particularly the randomised clinical trial, that we have become able to truly test medical interventions. Isolated cases such as Mr Davis’ still have a place in medical science, but they are considered the lowest form of evidence and best used in deciding where to allocate resources for testing treatments. There is good reason why our own Medicines Act prohibits their use in medical advertisements.
In order to provide safe and effective healthcare, doctors need to be able to accurately predict the outcomes of a treatment. Relying on poor evidence, like anecdotes, is likely to lead to inaccurate predictions and lower quality healthcare.
It is only by assessing high quality evidence, like in the recent report from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council that looked at the best evidence regarding homeopathy, that we are able to reliably provide high quality healthcare.
If you really care about the truth then evidence trumps personal experience, not the other way around. If you really care about whether or not homeopathy is effective, then you need to follow the evidence where it leads, even if it does not line up with personal experience. Currently, as the aforementioned report concludes, that means:
“The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans.”
Update 2014/04/24 8:38 a.m.
My letter to the editor was published in the Herald this morning. It looks like it was kept pretty much intact, the only difference I noticed is that the very end was edited to appear as though the conclusion I quoted from the report was in my own words.