Placebos as Medicine: The Ethics of Homeopathy

sugar + lactoseIs it ever ethical to provide a placebo treatment? What about when that placebo is homeopathy? Last month at Science-Based Medicine I blogged about the frequency of placebo prescribing by physicians. I admitted my personal discomfort, stating I’d refuse to dispense any prescription that would require me to deceive the patient. The discussion continued in the comments, where opinions seemed to range from (I’m paraphrasing) “autonomy, shmatonomy, placebos works” to the more critical who likened placebo use to “treating adults like children.” My SBM co-blogger Harriet Hall noted, “We should have rules but we should be willing to break them when it would be kinder to the patient, and would do no harm.” And on reflection, Harriet’s perspective was one that I could see myself accepting should I be in a situation like the one she described. It’s far easier to be dogmatic when you don’t have a patient standing in front of you. But the comments led me to consider possible situations where a placebo might actually be the most desirable treatment option. If I find some, should I be as dogmatic about homeopathy as I am about other placebos?

Nicely, Kevin Smith, writing in the journal Bioethics, examines the ethics of placebos, based on an analysis of homeopathy. Homeopathy is the ultimate placebo in routine use — most remedies contain only sugar and water, lacking a single molecule of any potentially medicinal ingredient. Smith’s paper, Against Homeopathy — A Utilitarian Perspective, is sadly behind a paywall. So I’ll try to summarize his analysis, and add my perspective as a health care worker who regularly encounters homeopathy.
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Don’t ask your pharmacist about Nervoheel N or Neurexan

Magic beans

I can across a strange full-page ad in yesterday’s Globe and Mail. The headline was huge:

Reclaim your inner peace. Homeopathic Preparations. Scientifically proven effective.

Proven effective? Large comprehensive reviews have concluded that homeopathy is not efficacious (that is, it does not work beyond the placebo effect) and that explanations for why homeopathy would work are scientifically implausible. Consequently, it seems quite a stretch to say any homeopathic remedy is “Scientifically proven effective”.  This particular ad was for two homeopathic products from Heel.  Both Nervoheel N (“calms stressful moments, eases nervousness”) and Neurexan (“restores your natural sleep patterns, improves sleep quality”) are approved by Health Canada as safe and effective. Kim Hebert over at Skeptic North went looking for the published clinical evidence to support these efficacy claims:

  • For Nervoheel N there was one open-label, non-randomized cohort study that stated “The differences between the treatment groups [Nervoheel and lorazepam] were not significant.” The paper concluded that Nervoheel N is non-inferior to lorazepam. No placebo group was included.
  • For Neurexan there were two studies. Both non-random studies compared Neurexan with another unproven treatment, valerian, in the absence of a placebo group. There is no objective way to separate these results from unintentional researcher/patient bias or the placebo effect. Therefore, the results of both are clinically meaningless.

This data was presumably adequate for Health Canada (search their database for products 80007796 and 80004914 here) unless there’s unpublished data that was supplied.  The ad continues:

Both products are suitable for the whole family, for short or long-term use, as they are clinically proven effective, non-addictive, and non-sedative. They have no known side effects, medicinal interactions, or contraindications.

In order to have side effects, first a product has to have effects. So no surprise there.  The strangest statement, however, is at the bottom of the ad:


Ask your chiropractor or naturopath for more infomation.

Presumably they don’t want you to ask your pharmacist for more information. What kind of response might a pharmacist give about the scientific evidence supporting this, or any other homeopathic remedy? Hopefully, a science-based one.

Pharmacists, Pharmacies, Homeopathy, and Ethics

Is it ethical for a pharmacist to knowingly sell a mislabeled product – one that contains no active ingredient, and has been demonstrated to be no more effective than a placebo? That’s the question being asked by Dr. Chris MacDonald over at the Business Ethics blog today:

If someone selling something believes that it doesn’t work, should they tell you so? Does it matter if the person doing the selling is a licensed professional, someone with advanced training and a sworn duty to promote the public good?

Dr. MacDonald is referring to the fallout from the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee Evidence Check on Homeopathy, which I’ve blogged about previously. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, the regulatory body for pharmacists in Northern Ireland is acting on this report, and has proposed that patients be told that homeopathic products do not work, other than having a placebo effect. Continue reading

Homeopathy and Consumer Protection

Editor’s Note: It’s World Homeopathy Awareness Week.

Today’s guest post is from Dr. Chris MacDonald, PhD. Dr. MacDonald is Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary’s University, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. Dr. MacDonald blogs at the Business Ethics Blog.

What should we think about homeopathy, from the point of view of Business Ethics? We can begin by asking the same questions about homeopathy as we would ask about any other product. Those questions fall under two main headings:

  1. Is it generally ethically OK to sell this product? Is it a product that should be on the market at all?
  2. If it’s generally ok to sell this product, what are the obligations of companies selling them? Are there any ethical limits on how or to whom they are marketed?

In a free society, there’s a general presumption in favour of free commerce. If Party A has a product and says to Party B, “Hey, you might like this,” and if Party B says, “Hey, I think I’d like some of that, here’s some money!” then they should generally be free to make the transaction. But there are limits. Some things cannot ethically be bought or sold (children or votes, for example). Other things can be sold, but only under special circumstances (cigarettes and alcohol, for example). And more generally, there is a very broad requirement that all transactions must be carried out without force, fraud, or deception.

Now, discussions over alternative therapies like homeopathy tend to be combative, rather than constructive, particularly on the Internet. That’s unfortunate, because a lot is at stake. Finding ways to have a constructive discussion is essential, but few make that effort. But there is common ground in the debate, and we should make good use of it. Both sides of the debate agree, for example — indeed they ethically have to agree — on the importance of consumer protection, though they may disagree on the right way of achieving it. Health is complex, and important, and the average consumer typically needs to be able to turn to experts to get good advice. There are plenty of unscrupulous individuals and companies out there willing to try to make a fast buck by preying on the gullible or the uninformed. Anyone who truly cares about health has to recognize that that’s a serious problem.

So, let’s look at homeopathy through the lens of consumer protection. Most generally, consumer protection means, first, making sure that products are safe (or “safe enough”, since almost all products carry at least some risk), and, secondly, making sure that products do what the manufacturer or seller says they’ll do.

Although I happen believe that homeopathy (like most other alternative therapies) does not in fact work, I want to have a constructive discussion about consumer protection with those who think it does. So I’m going to assume, for the sake of argument, two things that many skeptics are likely to deny.

  1. First, I’m going to assume that homeopaths (and supporters) genuinely believe in the power of homeopathy. That is, I’m going to assume that most homeopaths are not outright frauds. (Actually, that’s not just for the sake of argument. I strongly believe that to be a justified assumption. I strongly suspect that the vast majority of homeopaths and homeopathic pharmacies are 100% well-intentioned, and seek only to promote the health of their patients and customers.)
  2. Secondly, I’m even going to assume — again for the sake of constructive argument — that homeopathy works. I’ll assume that the anecdotes of homeopaths and their patients confirms the positive effects that Randomized Controlled Trials have thus far been unable to detect.

Next, given these assumptions, I’m going to pose two questions for homeopaths to answer, questions that I would likewise pose to any other kind of reputable business, especially any other reputable business in the field of health.

  1. How do we detect phoney homeopathic preparations? In order to protect consumers, we need to be able to detect fake remedies — fake versions (sold by counterfeiters) that are really just inert look-alike copies of genuine remedies. In an age of international trade and Internet-based pharmacies, phoney pills are a big problem. So, is there any way to test a homeopathic preparation to verify that it is genuine? If I buy homeopathic tablets, is there any test that can be done to see if they’re real or counterfeit? If authorities suspect a criminal organization of selling fake homeopathic tablets, how can they tell the difference between the criminal organization’s tablets and those manufactured by an honest homeopathic pharmacy?
  2. What advice would you give a potential patient/customer who is trying to choose among various alternative therapies? How should a potential customer/patient choose between homeopathy, Therapeutic Touch, acupuncture, Angel Therapy, and so on? In other words, how can consumers know that they’re about to buy something good, rather than something bogus? “Trust me” won’t do as an answer. Trust, in itself, is neither a good nor a bad thing; what we value is justified trust. What is it that justifies consumers in trusting you, rather than someone else? “Try it” also isn’t a good answer. When health is on the line, we shouldn’t have to experiment on ourselves. We should have some assurance ahead of time. Consumers deserve that. One alternative, of course, is to deny that this is an important question at all, by claiming that literally all alternative therapies work. But that would make little sense. There surely are fraudsters out there, offering stuff they know can’t work. And even ignoring outright fraud, the homeopathic philosophy claims to have identified the true nature of disease; other philosophies, it seems then, must have it wrong. Which ones? Consumers deserve your input on this important issue.

These are questions I expect any reputable business to be able to answer. They are also questions to which I have not yet heard homeopaths give good answers. (In fact, I asked a version of the 2nd question on my blog, with depressing results.) I’m honestly interested to hear any an answer.

In the end, what I’m really looking for here are reasonably generalizable standards of consumer protection across various categories of health products. What standard of evidence and safety should be applied to products offered for sale, quite generally? If homeopathic preparations are not expected to stand up to the rigours of Randomized Controlled Trials, why, in all fairness, should the products of the major pharmaceutical companies be forced to meet that standard? Surely Merck and GlaxoSmithKline would love to avoid having to jump through those hoops. Surely Big Pharma would love to be able to give vague answers to my questions above. But we don’t let them. And we’re right not to let them. The question is, can the Homeopathic industry demonstrate its commitment to ethics by giving clear answers, too?

The Cognitive Dissonance of Homeopathy

Pharmacy Photo

A pharmacist’s education is rooted in the study of the natural sciences. It’s training that lends itself to sorting out novel, science-based therapies from implausible pseudoscience.  To the the chagrin of the science-based pharmacist, homeopathic products are widely available at pharmacies in Canada and around the world. Many pharmacists endorse homeopathy and see it as complementary to conventional (real) medicines.  Others argue that they’re simply responding to consumer demand.  Is homeopathy based on sound science, and should homeopathic products be sold in pharmacies?


Homeopathy was invented in the early 1800s by a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann. At that time, illness was believed to be the result of imbalances in the four bodily “humors”, namely blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Typical medical treatments were crude and dangerous, and included bloodletting, blistering, laxatives and emetics, intended to bring balance to the humors. Hahnemann invented an alternative treatment system that he believed was less toxic and more effective at balancing the humors.

There are three key principles for homeopathy, and they’re fundamentally different from our current, science-based understanding of drugs and diseases. Continue reading