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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 20565

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: Journal Article

McCredie J
Jane McCredie: A drop of credibility
MJA InSight 2013 May 6;


IT was good to see the public outcry last week that forced television ads marketing fish oil supplements as a means to improve children’s NAPLAN* scores to be removed.

Sometimes, the purveyors of quackery just go too far.

And, at other times, they totally get away with it.

Homeopathy certainly got a free kick on the Radio National breakfast program last week.

Ana Lamaro from the Australian Homeopathic Association received a sympathetic hearing for her argument that the federal government’s review of the private health insurance rebate for natural therapies was an attack on her discipline.

Homeopaths were concerned the government was “using the review to damage their entire profession”, said presenter Fran Kelly in her introduction.

Er, no. The government review is designed to ensure that private health insurance rebates — government subsidies, in effect — go only to therapies that can demonstrate a certain level of safety and efficacy.

The therapies under review are those not provided by an accredited health professional, which are covered by private health insurance but not Medicare. As well as homeopathy, they include iridology, aromatherapy, various kinds of massage, Buteyko, yoga and pilates.

If homeopathy can demonstrate its safety, efficacy and cost-effectiveness, it should have nothing to fear from this process.

Ms Lamaro made it clear on Radio National she believes it can do that, suggesting it was only prejudice and an “unscientific approach” that had led previous investigators to conclude anything else.

She claimed 91 randomised controlled trials had demonstrated benefits from homeopathy — which rather flies in the face of the evidence, according to a summary of Cochrane reviews on the topic published in the MJA in 2010.

“The findings of currently available Cochrane reviews of studies of homeopathy do not show that homeopathic medicines have effects beyond placebo”, wrote Dr Edzard Ernst, head of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, UK.

Well, how could they, really? Homeopathic “medicines” are based on the dilution of substances to the point where there may not be a single molecule of the so-called active ingredient present.

I would really have to abandon any pretence at a scientific view of the universe to believe such things could work.

Homeopathy, like many alternative therapies, does seem to be particularly good at harnessing the placebo effect. A bit of hocus-pocus and time spent with a sympathetic therapist does genuinely make people feel better.

You might ask what’s the harm, given that the sugar pills and lolly water aren’t actually going to do anything on a biological level.

Well, there are bigger questions to be considered.

Homeopathic treatment costs money, which patients do not then have available for other treatments that might have offered a benefit. And there are well documented cases of patients dying after they rejected conventional medical treatment in favour of the homeopathic alternative.

There’s also the question of the effect these kinds of deceptions have on the health system generally. Do they contribute to a lack of trust in mainstream treatment? Do they undermine people’s ability to be effective managers of their own health?

Then there’s the fact that we simply can’t afford to be directing government subsidies at things that don’t work.

So, let the review take its course.

In the meantime, I highly recommend this Mitchell and Webb skit set in a homeopathic emergency department.

The remedy for a road accident victim with broken bones and internal injuries? Well, obviously it depends on the type of car that hit him. In this case, diluted essence of blue Ford Mondeo might be the solution.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

  • NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) is the annual program of literacy and numeracy tests for primary and high school students introduced by the federal government in 2008.


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Far too large a section of the treatment of disease is to-day controlled by the big manufacturing pharmacists, who have enslaved us in a plausible pseudo-science...
The blind faith which some men have in medicines illustrates too often the greatest of all human capacities - the capacity for self deception...
Some one will say, Is this all your science has to tell us? Is this the outcome of decades of good clinical work, of patient study of the disease, of anxious trial in such good faith of so many drugs? Give us back the childlike trust of the fathers in antimony and in the lancet rather than this cold nihilism. Not at all! Let us accept the truth, however unpleasant it may be, and with the death rate staring us in the face, let us not be deceived with vain fancies...
we need a stern, iconoclastic spirit which leads, not to nihilism, but to an active skepticism - not the passive skepticism, born of despair, but the active skepticism born of a knowledge that recognizes its limitations and knows full well that only in this attitude of mind can true progress be made.
- William Osler 1909