Sunday, 31 January 2010

When a Methodist examined homeopathy

I was interested to read today's report on homeopathy  in The Observer headed Are these remedies really a cure or a waste of NHS money?

Homeopathy is often presented as being some sort of traditional, pre-Christian era, natural form of healing. In fact it was the product of the theories and research of one Samuel Hahnemann , a German doctor whose life spanned across the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today homeopathy is big business across much of Europe and, which is the point of The Observer article, is now making headway into the National Health Service and costing us, the taxpayer, millions of pounds.

However there is absolutely no scientific basis to show that homeopathy actually works, the key word being "efficacious".

Until 1998 I really had little to do with the subject and rarely gave it a moment's thought. As a Christian I took a keen interest in the healing ministry and had seen and heard of "miracles" as people with real problems and illnesses were helped by prayer, the laying on of hands and the anointment of oil. Sometimes I felt that I was seeing little more than vaudeville show making a feature of people with real needs who would go away hurt and disappointed. On other occasions I saw wonderful healing, especially of the spirit, as a church gathered round to support an individual.

However in 1998 I suddenly found myself confronted with homeopathy in a way that meant I had to take the whole subject very seriously. I was a member of the European Parliament's Agricultural Committee and we were being asked to express and opinion on the use of homeopathy in veterinary practice with a view to an EU wide directive.


Now I could understand how humans could be "healed" by the use of placebos but I couldn't see how this could be translated to animals. They presumably had no idea whether the medicine was conventional or homeopathic, in fact not even making a link between their illness and their treatment.

Jobs such as draftsman for minor reports were handed out on a taxi-rank principle. I hadn't written a report for some time and it was my turn to do some work, so I found myself in the unexpected position of drafting the committee's report.

This rang alarm bells in the homeopathic industry. Like most lobbying organisations their trade association had already drafted a report for the draftsman (it happens all the time). What should have happened in their view, is that I would take their fantasy report and use it in my final version. The industry's main worry that I was British - they would have preferred someone from France, Germany or the Benelux countries where homeopathy is better established. When they found out that I was an evangelical Christian they went into overdrive, even lobbying to get me replaced as draftsman.There are many evangelical Christians who consider homeopathy as little more than witchcraft


When I met the various representatives I thanked them for offering to supply the draft opinion but said I would do my own research which they offered to facilitate.

My first stop was a massive homeopathic factory in Baden Baden. This was no hippie enterprise. It was big business with laboratories, production lines, well paid workers and lots of people keen to speak with me in perfect English.

My second stop was one of the few homeopathic vetinary practises in the country. I spent the day with a very down to earth vet and even sat in on the consultations. These surprised me. A few weeks before I'd been to seen my own GP about a waterworks problem. I was in and out within three minutes.

However I noticed the vet spent about half an hour each with a series of overfed cats accompanied by doting, well dressed owners, usually of retirement age. My solution would have been to put the cat down and refer the owners to the Cat Protection League for a stray. No way. These owners were prepared to pay for a specialist homeopathic vet and the "medicines". They obviously cared for their animals and I could see how lots attention could help the health of an animal, even with the placebos of homeopathy.


Later that afternoon I went on a farm visit. This turned out top be quite extraordinary. It was at the time of the controversy about fox hunting. This farming family were very much local people. They weren't middle-class, spoke with a strong local accent, and were a typical tenant farming family. The previous weekend they had been on the pro-fox hunting march in London so they were no tree huggers.

However they were absoltuely convinced that the homeopathic medicines the vet had proscribed were douing their animals the world of good. If the medicines weren't working then they stood to lose a great deal of money - sick animals can't be taken to market, sold and slaughtered.

My conclusions, written as was accepted practice in the third person,  were as follows:

"The draftsman is well aware that homeopathy is well established in certain Member States such as Germany and France, but much less so in other countries. Without wishing to go into the question of the effectiveness of homeopathy, this does seem to be an issue which should be left to individual Member States to decide in the fullness of time.


"To impose, at this stage, a requirement that homeopathic products which are registered and authorised in a country which has a well-established tradition of homeopathy should be accepted in all other countries, may have a counter-productive effect. While there is always a good case for improving transparency and clarity in matters such as these, in order to improve the single market, this process should not be forced on Member States in such as way as to alienate consumers.

"Some homeopathic remedies use dangerous chemicals such as mercury, arsenic and silica which naturally must give some concern about residues both on farm land and in the food chain. However, these "mother tinctures" are substantially diluted so it is claimed that they are harmless in use whilst remaining effective. Treatment is often on the basis of trial and error, with constant adjustments during the therapeutic period. How homeopathy works remains a mystery, though some claim that the sustained shaking of the mother tinctures during dilution sets up a molecular reaction in the body.

"Most of the evidence in support of homeopathy is anecdotal rather than scientific. During the course of his research, the draftsman felt that the critical factor in the therapeutic programmes may well be linked to the holistic and time consuming diagnosis rather than the simple application of a medicine. The draftsman came across some counter-anecdotal evidence to suggest that homeopathy, whilst having its advocates, does have its detractors and disappointed users....


"....The draftsman is not sympathetic to the objective of making these products subject to tests and clinical trials but it clear that the judgement of these "appropriate experts" will in fact be completely objective evidence in the scientific sense. It may therefore be wrong - and indeed dangerous - to suggest to the public that these medicines have been scientifically proven in the conventional sense."

The phrase which sticks out all these years later is that  "the critical factor in the therapeutic programmes may well be linked to the holistic and time consuming diagnosis rather than the simple application of a medicine."

I think this may be how real the Christian healing ministry takes effect. People feel valued when prayed for and have lots of love and care. For example I can see how there were so many people in the early chapters of Acts who were healed - for the first time they had full stomachs, others caring for them and a real sense of purpose for their lives. If you were a hungry Greek widow in Jerusalem an improvement in health and well being would be inevitable once you had joined a Christian community. I'm sure the same thing happens to those who join churches where the healing ministry in practiced and celebrated.

Nevertheless we have to be open to a supernatural intervention, I don't think we can say that about homeopathy.

Strangely though I felt that my experience as a Christian had helped, rather than hindered, my attempt to understand homeopathy.


Anonymous said...

Wow! I learned a lot and I love how you related it all to Christian healing ministry! Thanks!

Brother Marty said...

I can't say anything intelligible one way or another about homeopathic approaches to healing, but I do appreciate your objective approach to the topic. Well done...and well written. Thanks!

PamBG said...

Yes, that was a very balanced approach to the topic and I appreciate it too.

When I lived in Belgium, I knew a number of people who swore by homeopathy, something I found a bit odd to my American mind.

Pete said...

Great article - Feel free to check out my thoughts on if Christians should use homeopathy. I would love to hear your feedback. Pete Here's the link: