Safety studies

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When assessing the safety of homeopathy, there are two discrete issues to consider – the safety of homeopathic medicines and the safety of treatment by a homeopath as a whole. Homeopathy has an excellent safety record on both counts.[1]

The following topics are covered on this page (to go directly to a topic click on the topic title link):

Safety of homeopathic medicines

One of the main differences between homeopathic medicines and conventional medicines is that the latter are associated with significant toxicity problems. The highly-diluted nature of homeopathic medicines means that they are unlikely to lead to toxic side-effects known as ‘adverse drug reactions’.[2]

Safety of treatment by a homeopath

Several systematic reviews (systematic reviews = a summary of the total research evidence available on a particular subject, designed to provide more accurate information than single studies) have been carried out to look at the published evidence concerning the rate of adverse events (adverse events = an undesirable change) during or after medical treatment, but not necessarily caused by the treatment during treatment by a homeopath.

The most comprehensive study reviewed the evidence from 1970–1995, including clinical trials, case reports and information provided by manufacturers and regulatory bodies.[1]

Adverse effects (adverse effects = undesirable changes during or after medical treatment that are caused by the treatment (commonly called a side effect)) reported during clinical trials testing homeopathic medicines were found to be mild and transient e.g. headaches, tiredness, skin eruptions, dizziness and diarrhoea. These adverse effects occurred more often in the groups given a homeopathic medicine than in the control groups given placebo (placebo = inactive ‘dummy’ medicine or treatment), which is further evidence that homeopathic medicines are different from placebo.

These true ‘side-effects’ are easy to differentiate from homeopathic aggravations (homeopathic aggravations = brief intensification of pre-existing symptoms sometimes seen soon after taking a homeopathic medicine).[4] When this initial reaction is followed by significant improvement in the patient’s symptoms, it is considered to be part of the healing process and therefore classed as a positive therapeutic effect.[5]

A report by the European Council for Clinical Homeopathy reviewed the results of observational studies (observational studies = investigators observe and record what happens to a group of people without influencing the course of events (also called non-experimental studies)) assessing the safety of homeopathic treatment since 1995.[6] 6. The Safety of Homeopathy, European Council for Classical Homeopathy, January 2009 In 20 studies (covering a total of 7,275 patients) the percentage of patients reporting adverse events ranged from 0–11% (including homeopathic aggravations). No cases of serious adverse events or serious adverse drug reactions were found i.e. cases resulting in hospitalisation, life-threatening situations, persistent or significant disability/incapacity or congenital anomaly/birth defect.

  • Observational studies are less reliable than randomised clinical trials because they do not attempt to determine precisely what caused any adverse events. However they provide a useful measurement of what happens in real-life practice which can then be considered alongside RCT results to give the fuller picture; in this instance observational results confirm results from RCTs, suggesting that homeopathic treatment is safe and does not result in any serious adverse events.

Safe treatment is provided by Registered Homeopaths (RSHom)

Risk of harm to the patient in homeopathy arises from poorly qualified or regulated practitioners rather than the practice itself. Registered members of The Society of Homeopaths (RSHom) have met stringent academic requirements, completed a registration process, hold comprehensive insurance and agreed to abide by a Code of Ethics & Practice, providing the general public with a guarantee of safety and competence.[7]

It is sometimes stated that homeopathic treatment may carry ‘indirect risks’ of harm by delaying necessary conventional medical treatment.[8] However, in practice it is rare for a patient to seek help who has not already tried everything the conventional approach has to offer. Homeopaths also commonly refer patients back to their GP as the in-depth method of consultation by a homeopath can reveal signs and symptoms that the GP may not have had time to uncover. Professional homeopathic treatment can therefore act as an extra safety net rather than a potential risk.

  • In common with other members of the European Council for Classical Homeopathy (ECCH), the Society of Homeopaths has a clear and transparent complaints procedure. The ECCH member associations represent over 5,000 practitioners in 24 countries. A recent investigation found that only ten cases of possible unethical practice or malpractice had been reported against practitioners within this membership over the past decade. (The Safety of Homeopathy, ECCH, 2009) Although under-reporting cannot be ruled out, this supports the assertion that homeopathic treatment by well-trained and regulated practitioners is safe.

The need for further research

It is the collective experience of homeopaths and patients alike that homeopathic treatment is safe and many patients say that they choose homeopathic treatment rather than conventional treatment because it does not have the side-effects associated with many conventional drugs.9 However the need to continue to carry out formalised research to test the accuracy of these observations has been identified by researchers in the field.[4] 4. Endrizzi C. et al. Harm in homeopathy: aggravations, adverse drug events or medication errors? Homeopathy, 2005; 94 (4): 233-40, [5] 5. Thompson et al. A preliminary audit investigating remedy reactions including adverse events in routine homeopathic practice. Homeopathy, 2004; 93: 203-9

To find out more in ‘The Safety of Homeopathy’ download a detailed report by the European Council for Classical Homeopathy: click here

References

1. Dantas F, Rampes H. Do homeopathic medicines provoke adverse effects? A systematic review. Br Homeopath J 2000; 89: 535–8

2. Kirby BJ. Safety of homeopathic products. J Royal Soc Med, 2002; 95:221–2

3. Hitchen L. Adverse drug reactions result in 250 000 UK admissions a year. BMJ,2006; 332:1109

4. Endrizzi C. et al. Harm in homeopathy: aggravations, adverse drug events or medication errors? Homeopathy, 2005; 94 (4): 233-40

5. Thompson et al. A preliminary audit investigating remedy reactions including adverse events in routine homeopathic practice. Homeopathy, 2004; 93: 203-9

6. The Safety of Homeopathy, European Council for Classical Homeopathy, January 2009

7. Society of Homeopaths, Code of Ethics and Practice 2004 paragraph 2.2

8. Sharples F, van Haselen R. Patients’ perspectives on using a complementary medicine approach to their health. A survey at the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital NHS Trust. London, 1998