While it can be easy to disregard something because it is widely believed not to work, it’s still important to do a systematic, evidence-based investigation to confirm, or disprove, any such suspicions. In this case, I’m talking about homeopathy, which is considered a pseudoscience. Recently, the National Health and Medical Research Council of the Australian Government published an extensive review of the scientific literature on homeopathy studies done with people. After examining 57 systematic reviews, and 68 clinical conditions, they found that: “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.”
The main issue the council encountered when performing their review of the scientific literature is that the published reviews on the effectiveness of homeopathy are of poor quality. The reviews the council looked at aimed to show the usefulness of homeopathy for treating a specific clinical condition, a clinical area, or multiple clinical conditions. Overall, the council did not identify a single clinical condition out of the 68 with enough good quality, published evidence to say with a high “level of confidence” that it is treatable (or not treatable) using homeopathy. In other words, from this large-scale review, homeopathy was not found to work.
The clinical conditions examined varied greatly, ranging from glaucoma, constipation, malaria, dementia, chronic facial pain, and lots more. Out of the 68 clinical conditions covered in the 57 published reviews, 7 did not have any primary studies cited, 36 had fewer than 150 participants, many cited very limited or faulty studies (such as ones not including randomization, blinding, etc.), and the other conditions had similar quality issues. (Having a small number of people, i.e., a small sample size, was often a problem.) While none of the conditions examined had a high level of confidence in regards to treatment using homeopathy, lower confidence conditions still did not show a significant difference between the effects of a homeopathic treatment and a placebo.
While the council’s review clearly shows that there is no significant evidence to support the idea that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any clinical condition, it would be reassuring to see higher-quality studies on this topic so a conclusion can be made on the presence of evidence instead of a lack of it. However, it would be difficult to publish such studies in a mainstream journal since homeopathy is considered to be a pseudoscience.
So although it might seem unnecessary to investigate something that is largely believed not to work, it is still important to do — in Australia alone, it’s estimated that in 2008 people spent $7.3 million (in U.S. dollars) on homeopathic medicine. It might be nice to let those people know that homeopathy has not been conclusively found to be an effective treatment for any clinical condition.
For further reading:
- The Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council’s review “NHMRC draft Information Paper: Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions“
- Bob Grant’s article “Australia Officially Debunks Homeopathy”
- Teisha J. Rowland’s book Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Stem Cells and Modern Medicine