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.
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.