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Overview of Homeopathic Research

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Homeopathy contends that substances that produce symptoms in healthy people can cure symptoms in sick people and that diluting substances makes them more powerful. Neither of these ideas makes sense.

Advocates also claim that research backs their claims. But a close look shows that this is not true. To prove that a treatment works, it is necessary to demonstrate that it is more effective than doing nothing. This requires showing that similar patients getting the treatment do better than patients who do not. The vast majority of homeopathic products have never been tested in this way.

A few "positive" homeopathy studies have been published in major medical journals. Proponents trumpet these studies as proof that "homeopathy works." Even if their results could be consistently reproduced (which seems unlikely), the most that studying a single remedy for a single disease could prove is that the remedy is effective against that disease. It would not validate homeopathy's basic theories or prove that homeopathic treatment is useful for other diseases.

Most reports of homeopathic research appear in publications that have little or no scientific recognition and are not readily accessible. However, several review teams have taken the trouble to gather what they could and have published detailed analyses of what they found.

In 1990, an article in Review of Epidemiology analyzed 40 randomized trials that had compared homeopathic treatment with standard treatment, a placebo, or no treatment. The authors concluded that all but three of the trials had major flaws in their design and that only one of those three had reported a positive result. The authors concluded that there is no evidence that homeopathic treatment has any more value than a placebo.

In 1995, Prescrire International, a French journal that evaluates pharmaceutical products, published a literature review that concluded: "As homeopathic treatments are generally used in conditions with variable outcome or showing spontaneous recovery (hence their placebo-responsiveness), these treatments are widely considered to have an effect in some patients. However, despite the large number of comparative trials carried out to date there is no evidence that homeopathy is any more effective than placebo therapy given in identical conditions."

In 1996, a lengthy report was published by the Homoeopathic Medicine Research Group (HMRG), an expert panel convened by the Commission of the European Communities. The HMRG included homeopathic physician-researchers and experts in clinical research, clinical pharmacology, biostatistics, and clinical epidemiology. Its aim was to evaluate published and unpublished reports of controlled trials of homeopathic treatment. After examining 184 reports, the panelists concluded: (a) only 17 were designed and reported well enough to be worth considering; (b) in some of these trials, homeopathic approaches may have exerted a greater effect than a placebo or no treatment; and (c) the number of participants in these 17 trials was too small to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of homeopathic treatment for any specific conditions.

In 1997, the British journal Lancet published a meta-analysis that concluded: "We found insufficient evidence . . . that homeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition."

The overall state of homeopathic research is easy to describe: Most is worthless, and no homeopathic product has been proven effective for any therapeutic purpose.

In 1999, The Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics, which is the medical profession's most trusted drug advisory newsletter, summed up what health professionals should be should be telling patients: "The chemical content of homeopathic products is often undefined, and some are so diluted that they are unlikely to contain any of the original material. These products have not been proven effective for any clinical condition. There is no good reason to use them."

I agree.

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