Suckers and Quacks: The Canadian Homeopathy Debate

Samantha Copeland suggests that name-calling is not the best way to change people’s minds about homeopathy.

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Homeopathy has been getting a lot of press in Canada, lately. In early March, the CBC Current featured a discussion about controversial research with homeopathy happening at the University of Toronto. On April 1 of this year, the Ontario Homeopathy Act came into force, affirming Ontario’s choice to regulate the profession of homeopathy. It restricts the use of the label ‘homeopath’ to those who officially belong to the profession, in the same way that only medical professionals are allowed to call themselves ‘doctors.’ The vaccination debate has turned attention to the marketing of ‘nosodes’—homeopathic products that are advertised as alternatives to vaccines. Health Canada has required such products to indicate on their labels that they are not intended as alternatives to vaccines since 2013. This May, the Canadian Pediatric Society called for Health Canada to go further and penalise those who continue to promote these products as effective for preventing or treating infections.

The thing is, it has been accepted by the scientific community that homeopathic products are not effective at preventing or treating infections. They are not alternatives to vaccines, or any other medically effective product. This past March, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council published its conclusive, systematic review of all studies done with homeopathic medicine for a number of indications. They found that, despite considerable research, there is no good evidence that homeopathic remedies work. In response to this and to the moves toward regulation in Ontario, commenters have accused the government of “aiding and abetting…quackery,” and have called those who continue to pursue homeopathic treatments for their illness, “suckers.”

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To be clear, the crime of homeopathic products is not that they directly harm the people who take them – the reason they are allowed on the medical market in Canada is that they are, at least, safe. What is potentially dangerous about them is that sometimes, when effective drugs are needed, people take homeopathic remedies instead. It’s not that the products themselves are harmful, but that they are preventing sick people from getting care. As well, alternatives to vaccines that don’t work don’t prevent people from getting sick.

The last good estimate put the spending of Americans on alternative medicines at over three billion dollars a year in 2007. If, as many argue, these products do nothing at all, then that’s three billion dollars a year wasted. But just as many people seem to think homeopathic products are effective as those who argue they are a fraud. Heather Boon, dean of University of Toronto’s Pharmacy faculty and lead investigator on a controversial study, said recently in a CBC interview that this belief of patients—that homeopathy works for them—is the subject of her current research. Boon’s three-arm study compares patients diagnosed with ADHD. Two arms include homeopathic treatment and are further randomized, to those who receive only a homeopathic remedy and to those who also participate in therapeutic consultation with a homeopath.

Boon’s research protocol suggests that maybe patients are not suckers, maybe there is something to be said for the clinical effectiveness of a therapeutic relationship. Indeed, Boon is not alone. Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard University, for example, has been conducting clinical trials into the biological effects of placebo. He is convinced by the results that the method of delivering care has as much to do with many cases of healing as the actual treatment prescribed does.

But the placebo effect is not the only way that context and delivery can affect how someone experiences and responds to medical treatment. Media, advertising, government regulations and institutional settings can all contribute to the context of medical care. If the process of homeopathic consultation can make a patient feel better, then perhaps the fact that a study on homeopathy is being done at the local university can make a patient feel more confident in that process, too. The same goes with government regulations, the presence of these products on the website of Health Canada as an alternative treatment, or the fact they are on our pharmacies’ shelves.

Calling consumers suckers doesn’t change the fact that they buy those products because they believe they work. Nor is further clinical research into the effectiveness of homeopathy the appropriate path to take, either. If this and other research suggests that the homeopaths are successful because they take the time to care, then maybe future research should drop the homeopathy (and the placebo effect) out and start looking directly into the eye of the active ingredient – the therapeutic relationship.

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Samantha Copeland is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Dalhousie University and Research Associate at Novel Tech Ethics.

One comment

  1. Unfortunately I think your piece oversimplifies. Saying that homeopathic products do not harm people is like saying that not wearing a seatbelt doesn’t harm people. There are direct harms from homeopathy. Using a nosode as a substitute for vaccination places a person (usually a child) at risk of a preventable disease AND poses a public health risk. And there are non-physical harms. If I put water in a bottle and market it as a cure for cancer, that’s fraud. Conducting research on subjects where there is a lack of equipoise is unethical. It also means that scarce research dollars are diverted from more meaningful studies.

    Lastly, if someone bought a magic carpet, you might not change their mind by calling them a sucker, but that’s what they are.

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