The Science and Skepticism of Homeopathy: Debating its Place in Modern Healthcare

Homoeopathy is accepted as a system of gentle, holistic healing

Homeopathy medicine

World Homoeopathy Day 2023 is celebrated on April 10 to commemorate the 267th birth anniversary of the founder of homeopathy, the German physician Dr. Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843). He was a medical doctor who founded homeopathy in 1796, after his famous Cinchona bark experiment, and led to the discovery of the ‘law of similars'. This day is the opportunity for the homeopathic fraternity to promote evidence-based homeopathic treatment, capacity building of homeopathic practitioners, and promote homeopathy as a treatment of choice through scientific conventions organized primarily by the Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy, Ministry of Ayush, Government of India. 

This year, the theme of WHD is 'one health, one family,' i.e., homeopathy is the first line of treatment of choice for family health and wellbeing. In this write-up, let us explore why homeopathy is in the news in recent times/deserves the attention of healthcare stakeholders.

As a modern medical practitioner, I find it intriguing that despite the criticisms and debates surrounding homeopathy, it is still gaining popularity in India and about 100 countries worldwide. In India, the healthcare facilities of modern medicine and traditional systems of medicine have evolved over the years. Regulatory and autonomous bodies are now established to ensure synchronization in Homoeopathic education, practice, research, and drug development. Also, there have been preliminary efforts from the government to involve and integrate the infrastructure for Ayush systems with modern medicine, thereby converging all these systems into a single healthcare delivery system in the country. 

In India's rural and urban populations, homeopathy is popular for ailments like upper respiratory tract infections, infant colic, teething troubles in children, sleep disturbances, recurrent infections, skin problems, etc. The lower cost of treatment is also a significant point of its popularity among the masses.

Homoeopathy is accepted as a system of gentle, holistic healing. It is based on the law of similars, which Hahnemann discovered after his famous Cinchona bark experiment. As per this law, a sick person can be cured by a substance that can produce similar symptoms, as those of his disease, in a healthy human being. For example, a red onion, which causes watering and burning of eyes and nose while peeling, can be used as a medicine for curing runny nose in a sick person. However, homeopathic medicines are prepared and used in a highly diluted form instead of consuming the onion directly.

 Homeopathic medicines are prepared and used in a highly diluted form. They are further activated by potentisation, basically inducing friction manually at the molecular level of the substance, evoking its therapeutic effects. The homeopathic literature says that the adverse effects of the larger doses of the substance can be avoided due to this high dilution. 

The therapeutic powers of a substance are discovered by a methodical process called ‘drug proving', or more technically, ‘homeopathic pathogenetic trials', whereby the test substance is administered to healthy subjects, and their clinical assessment and analysis reveals the intervention’s clinical utility. However, whether it provokes specific effects in healthy volunteers needs further exploration due to the methodological weaknesses of the proving reports, which are now being revamped. Another fundamental principle of homeopathy is individualization, which is at par with the concept of ‘personalized medicine', which modern medical researchers are now studying and corroborating with the analysis of genomic data. However, there still needs to be a more convincing answer on these medicines' exact mode of action even though research studies are being conducted and reported in this direction.

Despite its increasing popularity, Homoeopathy has garnered a lot of negative propaganda and criticism from skeptics—the debate on whether homeopathy is just a 'placebo' crops up repeatedly on global platforms. Also, with the increasing number of users and the expansion of the global market of Homoeopathy worldwide, many new combination products without any pre-clinical testing of their safety have cropped up. There have even been anecdotal reports of adverse effects of some homeopathic medicines. The homeopaths passionately respond to such claims by justifications in the form of rejoinders published in scientific journals and social media posts. It is pertinent that a stringent system must be in place to deal with the skepticism surrounding Homoeopathy before it is established as a part of the mainstream healthcare system. Researchers from different biomedical and science disciplines are collaborating with homeopaths to conduct studies for pre-clinical studies, including safety evaluation of Homoeopathy medicines on cell line/ animal models and clinical research trials to validate the role of homeopathy in different disease conditions. Besides humans, evidence of Homoeopathy for animals and even plants has come up. Also, the National Commission of Homoeopathy proactively ensures homeopathic education and practice standards safeguarding the patient's right to safe treatment.

Homoeopathy is the treatment choice for many patients mainly due to its relative safety, affordability, and holistic approach. The time that homeopaths devote to their patients during the elaborate case-taking aids in building patients’ trust in the treating physician as a result of being heard. Also, the rising distrust among patients for the existing, sometimes stringent practices of modern medicines attracts patients towards the traditional and complementary systems of medicine. In diseases like allergies, eczema, and arthritis, where modern medical treatment has marked limitations, homeopathy is known to alleviate the distressing symptoms and improve a patient's quality of life. However, the patients must be well-informed to decide whether homeopathy can substitute conventional care. Many clinical trials have tested homeopathy as an adjuvant modality to the standard treatment protocol. Thus, homeopathy should not be advocated for clinical conditions without research evidence. Homoeopathy, if validated for veterinary use, can be a potential solution to the problem of antimicrobial residues in animal products.

Among the many challenges the Indian healthcare system has recently faced is the accessibility and affordability of quality medical care. Most of the Indian population can barely afford the most basic medical procedures, drugs, and vaccines. If, with the integration of homeopathy with mainstream medicine, such challenges can be handled better, homeopathy can be a boon for a developing nation like India. As medical professionals, we are responsible for providing all available treatment options to our patients, including alternative medicine. Homeopathy and patients from all social strata must have easy access to all alternative treatment modalities, which can aid in the conventional treatment to produce better clinical outcomes. With a bouquet of treatment modalities being accepted and practised in India, we can be a role model of integrative healthcare for the rest of the world.

Given the unique health challenges of the 21st century, alternative medical systems must be explored for their strengths and weakness and as a potential solution. Given the clinical experiences of homeopaths and their satisfied patients, as responsible doctors, we must be open to the unbiased investigation of the utility of alternative medical systems and integrate them into mainstream healthcare.

The author is  Senior Consultant – Health, NITI Aayog.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.