Homeopathic treatments 'no more effective than placebos'

Australian review of hundreds of research papers finds no reliable evidence to support homeopathy

Vials containg pills for homeopathic remedies
(Image credit: 2005 Getty Images)

There is no "good quality evidence" to show that homeopathic remedies work any better than a placebo, a review by the Australian government's medical research body has found.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) said it had found no reliable proof that homeopathy was effective at treating any health condition, be it headaches and asthma or anxiety and depression.

What is homeopathy?

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It is an alternative treatment based on a series of ideas from an 18th-century German doctor called Samuel Hahnemann. It uses a small amount of the substance causing the patient's symptoms and dilutes it many times in order to treat the condition.

How was the NHMRC review carried out?

The council assessed the findings of more than 1,800 research papers and found only 225 that met the criteria for its examination of the effectiveness of homeopathy. "Although some studies did report that homeopathy was effective, the quality of those studies was assessed as being small and/or of poor quality," it said. These had too few participants or were too poorly conducted to be reliable. The evidence was also reviewed by an independent company to prevent bias.

A UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report also reached a similar conclusion in 2010: homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos. Nevertheless, a 2013 survey of doctors found that 97 per cent had prescribed an "impure placebo" at least once in their career, with researchers suggesting that placebos have a useful place in medicine.

Is homeopathy dangerous?

The NHS says homeopathic remedies are "generally safe" with risks of serious side-effects thought to be small. However, it warns that some remedies "may contain substances that are not safe, or that interfere with the action of other medicines". Another concern is patients choosing homeopathy over medical treatments prescribed by a doctor. "People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence of safety and effectiveness," the NHMRC report warned.

What do the homeopaths say?

A spokeswoman for the Australian Homeopathic Association told ABC News that the NHMRC had already "made up its mind" about homeopathy before the results and said the research was restricted by a "very, very narrow" format. She claimed studies supporting homeopathy were ignored because they were not so easily comparable to the other research used in the review. "Homeopathy is a holistic form," she said, "meaning we are taking into account the psychosocial, the physical, the emotional state of the person in assessing what they might need medicinally".

What next?

The NHMRC hopes that pharmacists will reconsider stocking homeopathic treatments and that private health insurers will stop offering rebates on them. It has acknowledged that some people might think the report is a "conspiracy of the establishment" but said it hoped there will be a "lot of reasonable people out there who will reconsider selling, using or subsidising these substances".

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