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Placebo Power

Twenty years ago when I completed my first degree in homeopathy from London’s Westminster University people would ask me if I “believed” in homeopathy, as if it could only work for those with faith in it. It's funny how no one ever asked me if I believed in medicine years later when I crossed over the medical divide to study drugs and how they worked. Instead of being impressed by the results that “real” medicine was getting, I discovered that 90% of drugs only worked for 30- 50% of people (1). It made me realise that we are all different even when we have the same disease. When a person takes a homeopathic remedy that has not been matched to their expression of disease, as is the case in a clinical trial, they essentially are taking a placebo.

There are many other loopholes in the idea that homeopathy is just the placebo effect. For example:

Homeopathy works on babies:

How does the "placebo" exploit the subconscious of a baby to will itself to health?

Chronic symptoms disappear in a particular order after a remedy (with the most recent ones fading first and the older ones waiting their turn).

How does the placebo unravel the time line of symptoms?

Sometimes the first remedy does not work. Neither does the second. But the third one flicks the switch.

Surely there should be diminishing faith (and effect) with each successive remedy?

Asking a lot of detail about symptoms does not make the symptoms disappear.

While no one can argue about the emotional benefits of a listening ear, how does that translate to physical symptoms getting better?

“Real” medicine is a powerful construct in our minds. It conjures up images of white coats, stethoscopes, science and prescriptions. I have always wondered: if a measly little powdered remedy in an innocuous white sachet provokes healing through belief, imagine the effect of big, red capsules. And if the experience of visiting a homeopath in their simple consulting spaces can reverse symptoms, consider the subconscious power that is provoked when going to hospital with its beeping machines and bright lights. 

Generally patients do not arrive at homeopathy’s door with the expectation of being cured. Most come with a “give it a try” or “believe it when I see it” mind set. Some come with the belief that it cannot work. And yet it does, day in day out all over the world, for the suggestible and the skeptics.

I am still in awe of what changes classical homeopathy can bring about with the correctly-selected remedy. I intend to practise for a very long time still, one individualised-remedy at a time.

1. Nature 520, 609-611 (30 April 2015)

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