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OU on the BBC: Background Brief - Therapy On Trial: The Story So Far

Updated Tuesday, 8th August 2006
Janice Acquah asks how scientific homeopathy and other alternative therapies are

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There’s no shortage of satisfied customers who swear by homeopathy. Many of them have come to this type of therapy after what they consider the failure of conventional medical treatment, and claim that their cures are real, and certainly not "all in the mind".


Janice Acquah As an expectant mum*, Janice Acquah turned to homeopathy for her own aches and pains, but wanted a straight answer to her question: how can anyone be sure, scientifically speaking, that homeopathy - or any alternative treatment - really works ...?

Homeopathy is an alternative treatment system which has been practised for well over a century. It is based on the idea that very small amounts of disease-causing substances can be used to encourage the body to treat itself.

Homeopathy is now available on the NHS and it is reported that 40% of GPs have referred patients for treatment. Line of homeopathic bottles of medicine

But despite fervent popular support for homeopathy, many medical researchers insist there is a lack of convincing evidence that it has any real effect. They say not enough trials have been conducted into its efficacy ... and of those that have been conducted, very few are stringently enough controlled to meet their demanding standards.

In other words, even if a patient feels better after taking homeopathic remedies, it’s not down to any substance within the remedies that are doing the trick. Despite all hearsay evidence to the contrary.

Homeopathic remedy being prepared Meanwhile a majority of laboratory scientists dispute even the basic theory as to how the homeopathic remedies are claimed to affect the body in any case.

Homeopathic theory holds that water can retain a memory of molecules which have been in solution, even after those molecules have been diluted out. And they say that the more dilute the substance, the more powerful it is.

There are some scientists cautiously prepared to consider the idea - but most consider it to be as likely as the moon being made of low-fat spreadable cheese ... Peter Fisher and Janice Acquah

Needless to say, homeopaths are fighting back.
Many are involved in conducting research of their own, though they admit that it is hard to get funding for extensive trials. They insist that many trials have been satisfactorily conducted which prove that homeopathy has effects above and beyond what would be expected by chance.

Furthermore, some claim that conventional medical research is not regarded with the same sceptical scrutiny as alternative healthcare, and they actually have to reach higher standards in their publications than do pharmaceutical companies, for example.

The debate will no doubt rage for a long time to come.

But what about the ’p’ word.... PLACEBO?

Homeopathic prescription being prepared Sceptics claim that OK there may be beneficial effects to be had for some people taking homeopathic treatments, but these just demonstrate the power of their own minds. After all, a homeopathic consultation can involve a 2-hour discussion of your problems with a sympathetic doctor, which is bound to improve one’s mental health, and any treatment prescribed that comes with an expectation of cure ...
It’s reported that patients can have up to 100% - TOTAL - pain relief after an operation if they simply believe they’ve been given a painkiller. The mind is undoubtedly a powerful organ ...

Many homeopaths are happy to embrace the idea that medicine is an ’art’ and that the patient’s mental attitude to the treatment is all part of the equation. But that doesn’t stop researchers from conducting controlled trials to try and prove that homeopathic remedies work, whether or not the patient is emotionally involved. Cows

And patients like these cows certainly provide thought- provoking case studies.

Many farmers, and not only organic farmers, choose to use homeopathic treatments on their animals because they feel it works, and therefore eliminates the need for antibiotics, which quite simply is good for the bottom line. It’s hard to imagine these cows could experience ’the placebo effect’ since the remedies are often simply dropped into their water troughs ....
So - the jury’s out on homeopathy, and the research work continues.

Watch this space for more details ... but meanwhile check out our LINKS page for further information. Janice with glass of water

* ... since the making of this programme, Janice has had a little girl.

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First broadcast: Friday 15 Oct 1999 on BBC TWO


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