A Look at Homeopathy: Past and Present

August 15, 2016

Two summers ago I studied abroad in Germany and Austria to learn about the history of medicine in Europe through a Texas A&M University faculty-led program. While in Germany, I was surprised to learn that complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices seem to be in much wider use across its population than I had expected. I had the chance to learn about some methods including homeopathy.

Despite multiple studies showing the inefficacy of homeopathic remedies, there is still a sizable number of individuals who rely on homeopathy across the world. In fact, in Germany alone the rates of homeopathy use by individuals and of the number of healthcare professionals who practice it have been steadily increasing over the past few decades. A survey conducted by the NIH in 2012 found that nearly 6 million Americans had used homeopathic treatments in the previous year. As physicians-in-training, we should be aware of the alternative treatment methods that our future patients may wish to use.

Homeopathy comes from the Greek root words homoios (meaning ‘similar’) and pathos (meaning ‘suffering’). It is an alternative medicine form founded by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, in the late 1700s and based on the Law of Similars proposed by Paracelsus, the founder of toxicology. A major focus of treating patients in the homeopathic tradition is to provide individualized treatment. Medications, also known as similiums, are made by diluting an active ingredient in a continuous manner. Although the medication may no longer contain the active ingredient, the belief is that there is a “memory” of the original substance.

One reason for why homeopathy became a popular treatment choice in the 1800s was that the orthodox treatment methods for disease at the time were crude. Such treatments included blood-letting, purging, and dangerous polypharmacy. Thus homeopathy was considered safer and remained popular for some time until diseases were better understood in the early 20th century.

The American Institute of Homeopathy was founded at the end of the 19th century which led to inter-professional sharing of treatment methods between homeopaths and medical doctors. In 1903, the American Medical Association invited homeopaths to join the organization after long-held antagonism.

36 years later, the U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1939 allowed homeopathic medications to be sold openly on the market. These remedies are now mainly sold over the counter, in health food stores, or via internet sources. They do not need to be approved by the FDA as safe and effective. However, products that claim to treat severe illnesses such as cancer do need a prescription.

A 2006 study suggests that there is inconclusive evidence that homeopathy can treat cancer, despite many patients using it to alleviate their symptoms and to aid in their well-being. A different study found that patients had psychological improvement, including increased hope and optimism.

A study published in the Homeopathic Journal suggests that homeopathy can provide effective remedies for 8 diseases as follows:
• childhood diarrhea
• fibrositis
• hay fever
• influenza
• miscellaneous pain
• the side-effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy
• sprains
• upper respiration tract infections
The same study suggested that homeopathy is ineffective for
• stroke
• warts

It is important to note that homeopathy is not actually marketed as effective for all ailments by professionals who practice it.

Have you as a future physician learned about homeopathy in school? Have you ever used a remedy yourself? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Here are some resources to learn more about homeopathy:

Elisa Vengalil

Advocacy Coordinator
AMSA Wellness & Student Life Committee
Elisa can be reached at wsl.advocacy@amsa.org