Post-factual is the word of the year. Why? In part because the British voted for Brexit and the Americans elected Donald Trump as their next president, decisions driven more by emotions than facts. Voters didn’t even appear to care about obvious lies. "We know that Trump won’t do everything he says," say some. "The important thing is that someone is finally telling it like it is." Is this the spirit of our times? Feelings rather than knowledge?
Those in Germany who like to believe that we, as an enlightened nation of science, would never turn our back on the facts in such a way should consider the following: Sixty percent of all Germans have taken homeopathic remedies in their lifetimes and the share is continuing to rise. Furthermore, nine out of 10 people claim the remedies helped them, according to a 2014 study conducted by the Allensbach institute. Yet there is no scientific proof whatsoever of the efficacy of homeopathy. That doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t feel better after taking a few globules or drops. It only means that it has nothing to do with science and evidence -- but with feelings.
All studies conducted thus far have shown that the remedies -- prepared using extremely diluted ingredients in accordance with the 18th century theories of the German Samuel Hahnemann – have no effect on health beyond those produced by placebos. The latest review, conducted on behalf of Australia’s NHMRC health agency in 2015, analyzed 1,800 different studies on homeopathy and came to the scathing conclusion that homeopathic remedies cannot be recommended for any conceivable ailment (click here for a copy of the report in PDF format). It even warned that those who eschew classical treatments in favor of homeopathy are putting their health at risk.
Many Germans seem unconcerned. They have more faith in homeopathy than they do in doctors and rely more on their own personal experiences than on clinical studies. In no other country in the world is homeopathy as popular as it is here in Germany – and such treatments continue to be covered by the national healthcare system.
Placebos Should Be Labelled as Such
In the US, by contrast, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) now wants to better inform consumers about what, exactly, they are getting. In the future, manufacturers selling homeopathic remedies in the US will have to either prove that their product is an effective remedy for some sort of ailment – in which case the product would be considered a medication and be subject to the same strict drug monitoring regiment. Or they will be required to include a label on the package indicating that there is no evidence that the product works and that its claims are based on theories originating from the 18th century that "are not accepted by most modern medical experts." It is a requirement that would also be desirable in Germany and in the European Union.
In Germany, to be sure, labels on homeopathic products may not say what ailment the remedy supposedly alleviates. But they aren't required to provide any proof of efficacy on the packaging or any indication that it is in fact ineffective.
If Government Insurance Covers It, then It Must Work, Right?
Although EU regulations do stipulate that homeopathic remedies must be entered into a registry, must be tested for quality and safety and may only be sold in pharmacies, a simplified authorization procedure means that remedies can reach the market without having been thoroughly tested. It’s sufficient if, after years of use, no problems have arisen.
Yet homeopathic remedies can in fact contain ingredients that present a health risk or they can be harmful if used incorrectly.
Remedies that homeopathy practitioners mix themselves don’t even have to be registered. And that, as recently witnessed in the western German town of Brüggen, can even lead to death. The fact that homeopathic remedies are placed on the shelves of pharmacies next to medicines that require a prescription merely reinforces the impression that they are effective.
The assumption that all homeopathic remedies are plant-based is just as erroneous as the idea that anything herbal must also be good for you. Studies have shown that purely plant-based medications, by contrast, can be extremely effective.
One should not necessarily take comfort in the fact that some physicians advertise that they also use homeopathic remedies in their practices. That implies that the doctor in question isn’t working exclusively on the basis of accepted science -- which means that patients may not receive the best possible treatment or that the doctors are deliberately selling remedies that have no effect, which amounts to fraud. It could, however, also be that the doctor is merely trying to accommodate a patient who desires a holistic and gentle treatment along with attention and understanding. And perhaps the doctor, like many who use homeopathy, has personally had positive experiences with globules and drops.
Who cares why it works, as long as it does? That’s how many patients think. They trust nobody more than their own gut feeling. And they seem to have the most faith in doctors who do the same. They will then forgive those doctors a bit of ignorance, a few mistakes and a dash of fraud. Perhaps, though, that would change, even in Germany, if the packaging of homeopathic remedies were also to include a label stating: "There is no evidence that the product works." Though perhaps not. That, though, is just a feeling.
Translated by Daryl Lindsey