What can the U.S learn from homeopathy?

Homeopathy was all around me growing up in India, so I read this article with interest as it jogged many memories of visiting the family homeopath with my parents.

Faith Healing with Homeopathy — In These Times

Homeopathy rests on three unproven tenets: First, “Like treats like.” Because arsenic causes shortness of breath, for example, homeopaths prescribe its “spirit” to treat diseases such as asthma. Second, the arsenic or other active ingredient is diluted in water and then that dilution is diluted again and so on, dozens of times, guaranteeing—for better and worse—that even if the dose has no therapeutic value, it does no harm. And third, the potion is shaken vigorously so that it retains a “memory” of the allegedly curative ingredient, a spirit-like essence that revives the body’s “vital force.”

Fooey, the description of the science is hilariously pseudoscientific, but homeopathy is no laughing matter in India. It is estimated to be a Rs. 250 Crore (that is 2.5 billion rupees or about $58 million) industry as of 2002-2003.  I do not think this includes doctors and clinics. This website lists 158 colleges in India offering the  valid (it is like an MD!) degree of Bachelor of Homeopathic Medicine and Surgery, or BHMS. My parents swear by it, most of my family living in India has either visited, or regularly visit one. It is hugely popular for hepatitis and liver disease, more so than conventional medicine in India.

What’s the deal? Why is it so popular? I think Terry Allen is on the right track, this sentence here, buried in the middle, hits the nail on the head…

Part of the effect comes from the ritual of consultation with a practitioner who treats the patient like a person rather than a body part on an assembly line.

Allen does not quite grasp the significance of this sentence and tracks away into placebo effects and evil pharma. But here’s the deal: A lot of Indians (who can afford $4-$5 consultation fee) visit their homeopath every month. When I tagged along with my parents, we would go on a Sunday afternoon at 2 PM to this homeopath’s office, which was a wing of his house (a big house, I might add!). It was a relaxed and leisurely time, he spent 10-15 minutes with each of us (yes, my parents made me!) talking about the previous month, what we were up to, how stressed we’d been, how our ailments from the previous month were doing, had we noticed any changes to our health over the month, etc. We would be interrupted occasionally by his little kid, or his assistant relaying a message from his wife, it was as far removed from a doctor’s visit as possible. And yes, he would take your blood pressure, run simple blood tests, etc. At the end of it, he would give you little sugar pills/sugar coated powder formulations to take home. The formulations were individually dosed, it was all categorized and labeled for you.

This is like having a mini physical every month. Surely, just the act of talking to someone made you feel better, the act of ritually opening up little packets of “medicine” and following detailed instructions for 5 days helped, surely the homely and relaxing atmosphere of visiting a family friend helped, I don’t know.

Metrics? both my parents occasionally had their hypertension treated with homeopathy. This worked as long as they were borderline, and simple stress management would get the numbers down. This doctor was/is very good at stress management because he talked calmly, yet firmly, he would listen and tease their little everyday stressors out of them and that was probably good for a 10 point reduction. But I remember the homeopath sending mom off to a doctor for a more conventional treatment regimen as soon as she hit 160.

It never ever worked for me because I was way too sceptical to buy into the process, so I would not listen, or relax enough to talk. I would take my pills, but it would make absolutely no difference whatsoever. Of course, he was trying to treat me for severe sinus related issues probably brought on by pollution, and by sleepless nights spent on a beach looking for turtles!

I am sure that for every good homeopath, there were two bad ones who just handed out pills of sugar. But my parents’ homeopath was, and continues to be part Dr. Phil, part candyman, part cheerleader!

Homeopathy probably “works” because it makes people take the time to think about their life and what’s ailing them. It’s a lesson that American primary care providers could do well to learn.

4 comments for “What can the U.S learn from homeopathy?

  1. January 31, 2007 at 4:05 am

    Have you ever read Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers? It’s a fascinating look at the biochemistry of stress and how it causes problems. Sapolsky is a great science writer plus he’s one of the leading researchers in the field. There’s an interesting chapter on how mental stress leads to physical problems that ties into what you’re saying above. Highly recommended.

    http://www.amazon.com/Why-Zebras-Dont-Ulcers-Third/dp/0805073698

  2. February 28, 2007 at 9:07 am

    I read your article with great interest. I was very skeptical when I was younger, being dragged to a few Homeopathic ‘doctors’. Most of them are money hungry and do not seem to know their art.

    I visited a Homeopathic Practitioner a few years ago. I was impressed by his knowledge and indeed remedy for my on going cough.

    Since then I have been intrigued by the art of Homeopathy and have embarked on a course to become a Homeopathic Practitioner.

    I’ve started a blog focusing on Homeopathy .. have a look …

    Thanks

    The Student

  3. Stephanie
    March 21, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    I read this with interest, as I have experienced complete reversal of an autoimmune disease by going to a homeopath. I was diagosed with nonseriological rheumatoid arthritis in 1996..there followed a few years of doing the typical medical regime…then when prednosone had side effects that I did not want..I went back looking for alternative methods of treatment. I did acupuncture, herbal remedies, vitamins..then in 1999 had to go back to a rheumatologist who prescribed methotrexate as she told me my disease was too far gone…after 6 months of this as I looked at blood tests and saw that my liver count was going up through the ceiling..not a good sign..I asked her what might happen..she said well you might have to have a liver transplant…at that I left, stopped taking the methotrexate shots and located a homeopath whom I have been going to since then. I have few remanants of the swollen joints, I am able to walk, exercise, hold down a demanding job…so..while I hear your opinion, there are folks like me who have had good results. I wouldn’t go to a homeopath for a broken hip, but if it was an autoimmune diease or cancer..that would be the first place I would go.

  4. March 22, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    Stephanie:

    Thanks for reading. I am glad your arthritis got better. I would never discount your personal experience with any therapy. Obviously, something worked for you and since I know almost no medicine/biology, I would not have a clue. But unless homeopathic remedies pass the same double blind clinical trial, significantly better than sugar pill in > 300 patients, I can’t possibly trust the science of the remedy.

    That being said, the homeopath my parents went to in India has got to be the most attentive, caring and accessible medical practitioner I have ever met, and it is not even close. There is somethiong to be said for that. He was definitely part shrink, part confidante.