Call it coincidence, but twenty years ago is when I immigrated to California from my native Belgium as a medical doctor, acupuncturist and above all, in my heart and mind, a homeopath. I have been fortunate to have encountered the most brilliant medical minds in Europe and here in the US. New drugs, new vaccinations, new genetic discoveries, new techniques to probe deeper and deeper in the human body ... there seems to be no limit to the wonders we can expect from allopathy. Most people believe that modern medicine has arrived at the peak of scientific achievement, from which it will go from triumph to triumph.
Yet there is disturbing news on the horizon. Since World War II we have considered infectious diseases on the verge of eradication; in fact Secretary of State George Marshall made a speech to that effect in1948. Yet they are the number one cause of death in the world, and old-fashioned diseases like whooping cough, TB and cholera are coming back in record numbers. Microbes are becoming more and more resistant, due in part to the flagrant overuse of antibiotics by medical doctors and factory farms. These antibiotics, which we thought would eradicate infectious diseases in our lifetime, are becoming increasingly powerless against the new strains of resistant bacteria. Diarrhea, which we think of as a relatively harmless infectious disease, kills millions of children worldwide every year, making it the second leading cause of death after cardiovascular disease. TB, malaria, diarrhea, and sexually transmitted diseases are the real silent epidemics. Our attention may be diverted by the horror stories about AIDS and the Ebola virus, but these silent epidemics affect far more people.
Nor is much said about the 600,000 new victims of cancer every year in the US. In fact, in light of the newest genetic therapies, allopathic scientists predict that cancer will be conquered by the year 2010. As a medical doctor, I do pray that they are right, but as a homeopath, I doubt it. There are too many risk factors in the unhealthy American lifestyle and too many hereditary factors (which in homeopathy we call miasms) which allopathic medicine cannot touch with genetic therapy. Cancer is now the number two cause of death, not a hopeful sign for the immediate future.
Medical practices outside of "official" medicine always have been an important part of the public's health care. In fact, until the early decades of this century, allopathic medicine coexisted with homeopathic and herbal medicine in this country, as it still does in nearly every other country in the world. In fact I know of no other country in which one form of medicine has such a monopoly of legal protection and insurance reimbursement as allopathic medicine does in this country. Alternative healers, through the centuries, have offered a multiplicity of ways to address the confusion and suffering that accompany disease. The notion of alternative medicine as quackery (a term originally applied to allopathic physicians for using toxic doses of mercury to "cure" syphilis ) has been reinforced by a once commonly heard definition of it as any treatment not taught in an accredited medical school. This definition is no longer valid, as most medical schools have added nontraditional courses in response to growing public interest in alternative therapies. With this change in attitude came a change in name to complementary or integrative medicine, indicating that allopathy and alternative methods can be used together to support each other.
At the same time that we see tremendous interest in complementary medicine among the public-and a slow but increasing interest among medical doctors-we also see tremendous ignorance. One mistake I see among allopathic practitioners is to lump all the different forms of non-allopathic healing into one basket. But certain forms-notably acupuncture, homeopathy, and chiropractic-require years of study of health sciences comparable to the years of training in conventional medicine, and they should not be lumped together with psychic healers, pendulum dowsers and tarot card readers. This does a disservice to forms of healing which are based on scientific laws and principles and which merit the serious inquiry of the open-minded allopath.
In my lectures about homeopathy at medical schools and hospitals, certain lines of questioning keep coming up. One is the argument that homeopathy, like herbal and other "eclectic" medicines, is an old-fashioned form of healing, practiced by people with little to no training, regulation of practice or standards for quality of care. While it is true that in allopathic medicine we certainly would not accept any drug or procedure from more than 50 years ago (and most drugs are out of date within a few years), it is a strength of homeopathy that we use the same remedies discovered when homeopathy was founded nearly 200 years ago. When a new drug comes out, often side effects and serious problems are discovered only when millions of people start using it. It gives me confidence in homeopathy to know that the remedies have already been used by millions of people worldwide for many decades, and their effects are well-known. Our knowledge in homeopathy keeps building and building on strong solid scientific principles; we do not have to keep discarding what we know as allopathic medicine does.
When we study the history of homeopathic medicine in this country, we also see that in the nineteenth century, when homeopathy enjoyed such widespread support especially among the educated classes, homeopathic physicians received the same training as their allopathic colleagues plus an additional two years of homeopathy. It was well known that the most brilliant medical students would go on to become homeopaths. Unfortunately the American Medical Association (formed two years after the American Homeopathic Association, and with the express purpose of rooting out homeopathy in this country) succeeded in using legal and economic pressure to prevent homeopathic physicians from practicing. Homeopathic medical schools were forced to convert to allopathy or their graduates would not qualify for licensure exams; homeopathic physicians were taken into court to have their licenses taken away.
The "dirty tricks" of the allopathic medical societies in the early years of this century, plus the lure of the "magic bullet" of the new antibiotic drugs, led to a decline in homeopathy in the middle of this century, to the point that 20 years ago very few medical doctors were practicing it. The old guard had almost all died off and very few new doctors were joining. With the rise of interest in alternative medicine a quarter-century ago, the gap was filled at first with lay homeopaths. Now we have a tremendous interest in homeopathy among MDs, osteopaths, naturopaths, veterinarians, nurse practitioners, chiropractors, and acupuncturists. I can see this in my own school, where dozens of health care professionals are learning to incorporate homeopathy into their practices.
Another major change I see in the past 20 years is the research being done in homeopathy, both in the US and abroad. So often we see in the popular press-and even in medical journals, whose authors should know better-that homeopathy is "unproven" and "there is no scientific evidence to support it." The fact is that homeopathy does have good scientific evidence to back it up. Unfortunately most of the research has been done overseas and is not easily available here. Until recently, the US government has not funded research in alternative medicine, and it still has not committed funds in any way comparable to the funding of drug research in this country. And some of the research on homeopathy is faulty simply because it is difficult to apply the double-blind method (in which normally one drug is tested against a placebo) to homeopathy, which gives a different remedy to almost every patient with the same diagnosis (due to homeopathy's principle of individualizing). Yet the meta-analyses (overviews of all the studies on homeopathy) have shown that the better designed the study, the more likely it was to demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy. Within the past few years some good research on homeopathy has been done in this country and published in mainstream medical journals. With the government finally funding research, we can look forward to more of it in the years to come.
I have no problem with my allopathic colleagues scrutinizing the potential risks and benefits of alternative medicine. Let's examine some of them and see if homeopathy can pass muster.
Quality of care is often the first argument brought up by my colleagues. Homeopathy definitely has the potential to provide the same (or better) quality of care as allopathic medicine. In the past, as we mentioned, the most brilliant physicians were the homeopaths, and homeopathic licensure had the same components as allopathic licensure (in terms of the content and length of time of training, testing and certification, a defined scope of practice, review and audit and codified disciplinary action). The fact that homeopathy does not currently have this licensure system is a reflection on the political and economic forces at work in this country, not a reflection on homeopathy itself. Licensure efforts for homeopathy are underway in a number of states, at the same time that an increasing number of already-licensed professionals are incorporating homeopathy into their practices. In other words, this objection is only a temporary one until the United States can catch up with Europe, the former Soviet States and India in providing professional training and licensure for homeopaths.
Quality of products is another potential argument against alternative modalities. Random tests of supplements and herbs often show that the contents do not measure up to what is on the label. And the labels do not contain adequate warnings about the potentially toxic effects of large overdoses of some supplements and herbs. But homeopathic remedies are completely safe, non-toxic (in most potencies they don't even contain one molecule) and very inexpensive. And a true homeopath prescribes one single remedy at a time, therefore avoiding possible interactions among multiple remedies. Allopathy would do well to learn from this, since we physicians have the tendency to prescribe a multitude of drugs for various symptoms. This has never worked before and it never will, for it creates a jungle of side effects on top of the symptoms of the disease itself. And we may not forget that 100,000 deaths a year in this country are caused by conventional drugs.
Quality of science is probably one of the main allopathic arguments. Conventional medicine is touted as the leader in the management of infectious and surgical diseases. But allopathic medicine still does not have good weapons against cholera, for example. Yet homeopathy was already successful against the great epidemic diseases of 150 years ago: cholera, typhoid fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever. In a great flu epidemic earlier in this century, the statistics in London hospitals showed the mortality rate at allopathic hospitals was 55%, but less than 5% at homeopathic hospitals. Allopathic medicine claims to be based on the double-blind method, and discredits any form of alternative medicine which cannot fully support every remedy or procedure with double-blind research studies. Yet allopathic medicine itself violates this principle every day. Surgeries, for example, are difficult to test by this method. When surgeries are assessed by outcomes (how many people were doing better at the end of five years, for example), millions of surgeries per year are shown to be futile or unnecessary. And sadly enough, according to allopathic research, 67% of prescriptions are made based on the side-effects of drugs-in other words, not according to the original double-blind protocol.
When we look at the last twenty years, homeopathy as a healing modality has gained the attention of the public. Without any doubt, homeopathy could be advanced by professional standards and greater availability of instruction to interested health care professionals. That the public has embraced alternative medicine has been proven by the excellent 1998 study by David Eisenberg of Harvard Medical School, which indicated that 70% of the population had consulted an alternative practitioner. Because of its great results in the past and present, homeopathy will undoubtedly catch the attention of patients ready to embrace a scientific approach that has proven its validity in the last two hundred years. I hope that allopathic physicians will show a serious interest in this marvelous approach before they reject it. Humankind will be the better for it!