February 20, 2014

Australian homeopathy review – surely they are kidding?

The NHMRC in Australia's strategic plan identified "‘examining alternative therapy claims’ as a major health issue for consideration by the organisation, including the provision of research funding" (http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/your-health/complementary-and-alternative-medicines). Well, that seems OK; they include a wide range of treatments under "complementary and alternative therapies", from the relatively mainstream (meditation and relaxation therapies, osteopathy) to the completely bonkers (homeopathy, reflexology), so it is reasonable to investigate the effectiveness of some of these.

But hold on! Further down the page we find a "Homeopathy review", and NHMRC have convened a "Homeopathy Working Committee" to oversee this. The plan seems to be to conduct an overview of systematic reviews on the effectiveness of homeopathy, to produce an information paper and position statement. The Working Committee includes some eminent names, and one member who, as a teacher of homeopathy, has a clear conflict of interest. I suppose you can argue that it is important to have a content expert in a review team, but in this case, where someone cannot help but have a personal interest in one particular outcome, it doesn't seem right. Like asking a committed Christian to weigh up dispassionately the evidence for the existence of god(s); unlikely to work.

I am somewhat staggered that this review is going ahead as it can only come to one credible conclusion, and I am struggling to understand the NHMRC's motivation. Did the homeopathy lobby push for this as part of its effort to be seen as evidence based and mainstream? Or did the NHMRC think that this was the best way to put homeopathy to bed for good? If the latter, I doubt it will be successful, as there will always be odd "statistically significant" results from trials of homeopathy, caused by bias or chance, that will keep the possibility of effectiveness alive in the minds of the credulous.

I have contacted the Homeopathy Working Committee to encourage them to use Bayesian methods with an appropriate prior!

UPDATE 25 July 2014

The report has been published and you can read it here: https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/your-health/complementary-medicines/homeopathy-review.

The conclusion is less than scintillating:

"There is a paucity of good-quality studies of sufficient size that examine the effectiveness of homeopathy as a treatment for any clinical condition in humans. The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans."

At least it concluded lack of effectiveness, but the comments on the lack of good quality studies might encourage people to keep doing homeopathy studies - which would in my view be completely misguided.

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