Homeopathy and the placebo effect
27 December 2017 (online)
The placebo effect is powerful and has been a force in medicine from the dawn of history. It might be defined as ‘The therapeutic response occurring in a patient consequent upon giving him a completely inert preparation or procedure, which in itself could not affect the patient's health.’ The best way to recover from an illness would be to have someone or something evoke this healing response — no drugs, no knives — splendid! Indeed if homeopathy were only a superb way of producing a placebo response, its existence would be more than justified by that alone — but there is a great deal more to it than that.
Homeopathy, in common with almost all medical disciplines, benefits and makes use of this wonderful but little understood phenomenon. Until about 70 years ago physicians had little else to rely on; their medicines were almost all ineffective from a scientific point of view, but often worked, why? For a number of reasons; firstly, the patient was optimistic that they would; they expected them to be effective and in fact conditioned themselves (or were conditioned) to believe that the medicines would make them better. The effectiveness of the medicine was enhanced by the charisma of the physician; his wisdom, authority, compassion, understanding, humour, knowledge, etc; the whole package. (Currently knowledge is rated as the quality that matters most, but knowledge without wisdom can be dangerous.)
An important ingredient of the so-called placebo effect is the ability of the doctor to allay anxiety. Every illness has a component of anxiety, even a ‘local’ illness like a cold or a boil; some illnesses of course have a very large component — panic attacks, anxiety states, depression etc. If the physician can relieve the anxiety even to a small extent, it may make a great difference to the patient; the energy, which was being dissipated on worry and anxiety, is channelled into combating the illness. An extreme example of the placebo effect is the fact that witch doctors and shamans in various parts of the world can bring about surprising cures and it is said, can even kill people by using (or misusing) this powerful response! So, it is evident that a number of factors contribute to the placebo effect.
I once had the privilege of knowing a remarkable doctor, Margery Blackie who was homeopathic physician to Her Majesty The Queen. Dr Blackie emanated enormous energy; every one who met her thought ‘here is someone who really understands my case’, ‘at last something is being done to help me’. When she came into a sick room there was a general feeling of relief, ‘Thank Goodness, here she is, now we will be all right’ — anxiety and tension were reduced and the scene was set for recovery; a wonderful placebo effect!
Homeopathy certainly uses the placebo response but there is much more to it than that. Many patients who consult homeopathic physicians have already spent a great deal of time and money on conventional treatments which have not helped them, yet are dramatically cured or improved as a result of the homeopathic consultation. If it were merely the placebo effect, one would have thought that the conventional consultants would have been able to evoke the response.
I used homeopathic medicines extensively in my very busy National Health practice for nearly 30 years; at least 50% of my NHS prescribing was for homeopathic preparations. Often there was little time for more than a short consultation; it was very unlikely that there could be any placebo effect it was evident that the medicines themselves produced excellent clinical responses. I have prescribed many times without seeing the patient, by telephone or to a relative, with success. Babies and the old and senile respond well. More and more vets are finding it effective in animal practice, they are attending homeopathic courses, taking the exams and becoming Members of the Faculty of Homeopathy (as are increasing numbers of doctors).
There is no doubt that we have in homeopathy an effective, nontoxic and inexpensive therapy, however, exactly how the very high potencies (high dilutions) work, remains for the present, a mystery. That they do work is undeniable to anyone who has had any experience of homeopathy.