Feb 12, 2017

Homeopathy sells dangerous lies to patients

Homeopathy
Vyom Sharma
The Sydney Morning Herald
February 8, 2017

Homeopathy: no scientific effect.
As a doctor, I lie to my patients every day. I'll say "this won't hurt a bit" before giving injections when, in fact, it does hurt (a bit). I'll promise kids that if they stop crying and let me examine their ears, their mother will buy them a pony. These small lies are well intentioned, sometimes comical and instantly forgiven.

But there are some lies I won't tell. I won't, for instance, substitute the vaccine in a syringe with water, and tell parents their baby will now be protected against measles. That would be a vile and unconscionable betrayal of the truth. Can we at least agree on that? Apparently not.
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There is an epidemic of false cures being sold to sick Australians. But it's not an underground black-market trade. It's a certified, rubber-stamped official practice. It is enshrined in government policies, codified in professional code of conducts, funded with our taxes and sold by pharmacists. An intricate web of lies protects the pernicious practice of homeopathy in Australia.

Homeopathy is one of the most widespread disciplines of alternative medicines, with an estimated one million Australian consumers. It's very popular. It also doesn't work. At all. No better than a sugar pill, anyway. Turns out, vials of homeopathic remedies are chemically indistinguishable from water.

Numerous international investigations and a scientific review of over 1800 studies by the National Medical Health Research Council could not be clearer: there is zero evidence that homeopathy is an effective treatment for medical conditions.

And yet the practice of homeopathy in Australia goes largely unchecked. The industry is overwhelmingly self-regulated by its own board, lending it an undue air of legitimacy. Meanwhile homeopaths advertise their ability to treat everything from autism to haemorrhoids with near impunity. Most obscenely, homeopathic therapies attract rebates under private health insurance policies that are funded by public taxes.

The justifications for allowing homeopathy are convoluted. One of the most common defences is that if the remedies truly are ineffective vials of water, then they are harmless. This is perhaps the most toxic myth about these therapies. Giving people a false cure for real symptoms is dangerous, because it delays correct diagnosis and treatment.

As a general practitioner I have observed the consequences of this in practice, seeing patients of homeopaths with conditions ranging from undiagnosed autoimmune disorders to mistreated blood pressure. These experiences mirror more notorious incidents – one West Australian coronial inquest in 2005 revealed a case where a homeopath treated rectal cancer, leading to the patient's death. In 2009, a nine-month-old child with severe eczema was treated by her homeopath father who was later found guilty of manslaughter by denying her conventional medical care.

These are the kind of horror stories that prompt bureaucracies into symbolic action. Enter the Victorian Health Complaints Commission: a brand new watchdog unveiled last week to reign in, as Premier Daniel Andrews called them, "dodgy health providers". The idea is that "health service providers" in Victoria, whether officially registered or not, will have to follow a general code of conduct. Included in this category are all homeopaths, and practitioners of other completely debunked practices such as reiki and iridology.

The idea seems good on paper. The new code demands practitioners are truthful about their treatments, and act in the patient's best interest. But here's the catch – the commission will only take action on complaints lodged against individual practitioners.

This system is clearly geared towards only chasing a handful of rogue practitioners. But the problem isn't a few rogue practitioners – it's entirely rogue industries. The discipline of homeopathy, by its very nature, is untruthful.

Perhaps we can begin by following the lead of the United States, where the Federal Trade Council has ruled that homeopathic medicine labels must state that there is no scientific evidence backing homeopathic health claims. You have to admit, it's bold stuff. It leaves our ACCC looking quite impotent. Real change requires the kind of courage that is in short supply.

That's what it comes down to – cowardice. Homeopathy, along with an array of debunked complementary and alternative health disciplines, are tolerated by authorities to avoid an inconvenient confrontation. They let it slide to avoid upsetting delusional practitioners, misinformed customers, and anyone profiting from the practice. The presence of disproved medicines has insidiously embedded itself so deeply into our culture that curtailing a false cure is a huge political risk. So the status quo prevails, lest we rock the boat. Never mind that it's heading straight down a waterfall.

Vyom Sharma is a Melbourne GP.

http://www.smh.com.au/comment/homeopathy-sells-dangerous-lies-to-patients-20170206-gu6m3h.html
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