When tested under rigorous conditions - when neither the patient nor the doctor knows whether they're using homeopathy or not until all of the tests are done - homeopathy has shown to work no better than a sugar pill. That doesn't mean people do not feel better after taking homeopathy; only that those feelings aren't related to the homeopathy. This is known as the placebo effect and is often misunderstood. Conventional medicine also has a placebo effect, on top of its other benefits.
The choice between medicine and homeopathy comes down to a simple question: would you have a placebo, or a placebo plus a treatment that has been proven to work?
The theoretical principles that underpin homeopathy lack any scientific credibility and the so-called 'laws of homeopathy' do not tally with anything we know about the world around us. Only a basic understanding of chemistry is needed to demonstrate that that homeopathic tinctures can only be plain water. For more on the theory behind homeopathy, see our What is Homeopathy page.
The homeopathy industry is worth around £40million in the UK, and around €400million in both France and Germany. While this may seem small compared to the pharmaceutical industry, pharmaceutical medicines are required to show clinical effectiveness before they are licensed for sale. Homeopathy bears no such requirements and £40million is a lot of money to spend on something that you haven't proved works.
Homeopathic pills are being sold at a cost of around £5.95 for less than 20g of sugar pills. Without any active ingredient, that ultimately amounts to a lot of money for not a lot of sugar.
In the UK, the NHS spends an estimated £4million every year on homeopathy. The British government also supports four Homeopathic Hospitals using taxpayers money, in Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London. The evidence is very clear: homeopathy does not work and therefore has no place within the National Health Service. Despite the recent heavy cuts in public expenditure, the British government still refuses to cut funding for homeopathy, even when advised to do so by top scientists.
When homeopathy is accepted as a viable alternative to medicine, patients waste time taking useless pills and potions instead of seeking expert medical attention. For mild ailments, like a cough or a cold, the risks are minimal; but for patients with more severe conditions, time can be a significant factor in their recovery. Many homeopaths even directly encourage patients to wait before seeking medical attention, even when their condition deteriorates, claiming that worsening symptoms are a sign their potions are working.
Moreover, patients with terminal conditions are left with an unrealistic view of their condition and may be distracted from making the most of the time they have left. This ultimately leads to more heartache and suffering when the bogus treatment proves futile.
Thousands of studies have been conducted into the effectiveness of homeopathy and its various 'laws'. So far, none reliably shown homeopathy to be effective and most are conclusively negative. Any conventional treatment with a similar track record would have been dropped a long time ago. In fact, many treatments have been dropped, even with a stronger evidence base than exists for homeopathy. If we weren't wasting time proving, yet again, that homeopathy doesn't work, we could be looking for treatments that do.
The thing about homeopathy is, we don't need it. Medicine works. Diseases like measles, whooping cough and polio are effectively prevented by vaccination. Modern anti-retroviral drugs help HIV sufferers manage their condition so effectively that AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was.
Homeopaths offer bogus 'cures' for AIDS, which leads to vulnerable people, sick to death, paying for the privilege.
Buy a vial of 30C homeopathic sulphur at your local pharmacy and one thing you can be sure you won't find in the bottle is any sulphur. You have significantly more chance of winning a triple rollover on the lottery than you have of finding even a single atom of sulphur in that tube; but the label still reads 'Sulphur'.
Giving legitimacy to unproven and ineffective treatments does not come without a cost. The cost of allowing the promotion of homeopathy as an 'alternative' to medicine comes when patients are unable to distinguish between a self-limiting condition which will cure itself given time, and a more serious illness which will become life-threatening if incorrectly treated. Stories of people abandoning medicine in favour of quack cures, with disastrous results, are not hard to find. By allowing the promotion of a therapy proven to be ineffective and implausible, we encourage people to turn their back on the treatments that can help them.
From time to time, it's understandable that a simple-to-administer placebo treatment might carry some benefit for doctors, where no medical intervention has a particular, proven effectiveness. In these scenarios, it could be argued that homeopathy might have had a role to play, providing a harm-free, effect-free placebo to help manage the otherwise unmanageable. However, homeopaths abuse this minor level of legitimacy to make claims about conditions the placebo effect could not possible treat. Cancer, HIV, malaria, yellow fever, autism, tuberculosis. They discourage people from seeking medical help when they most need it. It's time to stop lending support to quackery; time to give people the facts about this 200-year-old snake oil, before they choose to use it instead of the ever-improving and reliable interventions of modern medicine.