Forget homeopathy, doctors need to make up their minds about placebos | Martin Robbins | Science |

Forget homeopathy, doctors need to make up their minds about placebos | Martin Robbins | Science |

“Last week we were treated to the sight of hundreds of British doctors voting on whether homeopathy has a place in the NHS – a surreal spectacle on a par with watching a geologists’ union arguing what their position on the likelihood of a flat Earth should be…”

Why does it take a vote to decide on an issue on which common sense should be the deciding factor?  The fact remains that a proportion of people DO still believe that homoeopathy ‘works’ and is harmless.  This is where I have to disagree.  Homoeopathy is an industry and like any industry its prime concern is its bottom-line.  It always helps sales to show that you ‘believe in your product’, but I wonder how many of the industry’s best and brightest would truly be willing to put it to the test in the case of their own health and the health of their friends and loved ones?

“In fact their arguments weren’t really about homeopathy at all, but made a compelling case for a wider debate about British medicine’s elephant in the room – the placebo”

The fact is that homoeopathy, should have been entirely replaced by effective medicine long before now in favour of the conventional medicine that does not rely on mysticism and superstition as it’s basis.  Replacing it with known placebos is not a viable answer.  It is a ‘let’s do nothing but just say we did‘ knee-jerk reaction to the realisation that many people have realised these ‘therapies’ are not only useless, but also dangerously counter-productive.  Homoeopathy has a vast public following but I can’t help but suspect that this stems from both a lack of understanding, and deliberately misleading advertising.

“Garner made three points to me: that we shouldn’t be withdrawing treatments that work for patients (whether this is a placebo effect or not); that the medicines these patients might otherwise be given, such as painkillers, SSRI antidepressants or antibiotics, may have side effects or be more expensive; and that by catering to their whims “we keep the patients in contact with conventional medicine so if their symptoms change they are not alienated from mainstream medicine“.”

Does the power of the placebo not depend upon ignorance and unwillingness to question ‘evidence‘?  If I knew that I was taking a mere sugar pill for a headache which over the counter drugs had not eased, I am certain that it would not work.  If I was prescribed a placebo without my knowledge which then did not work, I would certainly then be led to further worry and concern about WHY the drugs I was knowingly prescribed by a medical professional were not working.  This is the danger we face in legislating that doctors may or should, issue prescriptions for placebos.  We have to be able to trust our doctors so I don’t agree in any degree that a doctor should be deceiving their patients by prescribing anything that is harmless enough to be bought over the counter at a pharmacy (or sweet shop).

“…homeopathy is a rip-off – why should the NHS pay a fiver a time for magic sugar pills when a tube of Smarties costs 50p, comes in lots of different colours and has pretty much the same evidence base?”

Were I to cease my medication for my thyroid condition in I would be dead within months after spiralling into depression, hair loss, extreme weight gain, and dry skin conditions.  Sites such as

employ scare tactics to persuade possible sufferers of similar late onset conditions, that rather than visiting a doctor, the wiser choice would be to buy their products.  This is the worst form of rip-off.  It’s a dangerous one that has the very real potential of costing lives.  I am unlucky enough to have been born with an inactive thyroid, as was my son, but in that I also know the dangers of not taking the prescribed medication and will be able to educate my son about our condition so he will be safe from these scams.

“…homoeopaths are not trained in the same way that doctors are to make diagnoses or give out prescriptions. Nobody claims that all real doctors are perfect either, but with the best will in the world, giving homoeopaths responsibility for front-line medicine is like letting toddlers fix your car because they can drive a go-kart and make “vroom vroom” noises.”

The difference between homoeopathy and placebos is the same as the difference between blue paint and yellow paint.  It may look different on the surface and it may sound different, but it is still paint.  If people wish to waste their money on alternative medicine then it is up to them to make the informed choice and live with the consequences.  These remedies and potions should not be available let alone prescribed on the NHS. The key is in the name ‘alternative’.  What is now conventional medicine was developed because the others didn’t work and gone are the days where all we had were herbalism and folk remedies to rely on.

“A fact nobody disputes is that for some patients, homeopathy works, just as any sugar pill would. Is there therefore a case for allowing placebos – and by extension alternative medicine – to be used in treating patients?”

In which case, I wonder if they really did need to medicate the condition at all?  I am not suggesting or accusing anyone of  hypochondria but I suspect that these ‘medicines’ and placebos seem to work best in curing psychosomatic symptoms;  they work because people think they work and that they are taking something based on science.  If a doctor feels the need to prescribe a placebo, then they should probably be suggesting counselling as well. Were they to visit a counsellor I am sure they would experience much the same result while actually discovering the cause of their symptoms.



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