Reading Between the Lines

By Eric L. Foxman, R.Ph.

A negative bias of unfavorable reports on homeopathic medicine is an unfortunate and continuing trend. Although numerous studies show measurable benefits of homeopathy, there are other reports that appear to be simply intended to discredit this 200 year old system of therapeutics. The underlying negative prejudice of these reports is often well hidden but can easily be seen when the real data is examined. Any preconceived conclusion can be proven by choosing the right multifaceted statistical analysis.

One of the largest such studies was undertaken in Switzerland; it purported to show that alternative medicine has no beneficial effect on overall health and, in fact, forces medical costs to rise. This study is significant because it was based on a very large patient population followed over a multi-year period. Underwritten by the Swiss insurance industry, the study had access to detailed cost reporting for the various therapies chosen by the participants.

Despite the wealth of data available to the report authors, the retrospective study was fundamentally flawed by the research design, the inappropriate analytical methods, poor randomization and inadequate division into study and control groups, as well as the unsuccessful basis for comparison between the groups. As a number of other reviewers concluded, these problems are indicative of apparent prejudice by the study authors. “It may be that homeopathy’s growth in sales and acceptance among some medical professionals causes others, with little understanding of this mode of therapy, to seek to discredit or slow its growth,” noted Robert S. Bell, a former Board Member of the A.A.H.P.

Many who have read the study are surprised to learn of the study’s conclusions, which were so contrary to their own expectations of positive benefits and lowered costs from the use of complementary medicine. It may be important to exercise a healthy dose of skepticism when reading scientific reports which violate one’s inherent sense of the truth, A little digging will reveal exactly where the discrepancies lie.

One of the A.A.H.P.’s goals is to increase the visibility and acceptance of homeopathic medicine. These kinds of negative studies do nothing to educate consumers and health professionals about the real value of homeopathy. They are a disservice to everyone concerned, even the study sponsors.

If a well designed and executed study finds a ‘statistically significant’ association, this does not mean that the study has shown a cause and effect relationship. Unfortunately, in the haste to say something negative about homeopathy, such false conclusions are disseminated as scientific truths, when in fact they are nothing more than wishful thinking.

This particular study was sponsored by a large Swiss insurance company looking at the economic effect of providing benefits for complementary medicine. The overall report and abstract were very negative, though a careful review of the facts by three independent organizations showed a very different interpretation. In fact, the subsequent review lead to the Swiss publication of a booklet entitled: Natural Healing Saves Costs and Improves Health.