Homeopathy: No better than placebo?

In March 2015, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published an Information Paper on homeopathy, commonly referred to as ‘The Australian Report’, essentially declaring homeopathy to be no better than placebo.

This document concludes that “…there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective”.

This report triggered headlines around the world falsely suggesting NHMRC had found that homeopathy doesn’t work for any condition, and was simply a placebo.

However, it wasn’t until after the report had been released, and headlines generated, that the alarming flaws in NHMRC’s approach to the Homeopathy review were brought to light. The most serious scientific breach… NHMRC did the review twice, only publishing their second attempt.

  • The NHMRC did the homeopathy review twice, producing two reports, one in July 2012 and the one released to the public in March 2015.
  • The existence of the first report was never disclosed to the public, and knowledge of it being carried out has only been revealed through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
  • NHMRC say they rejected the first report because it was poor quality despite it being undertaken by a reputable scientist and author of NHMRC’s own guidelines on how to conduct evidence reviews.
  • FOI requests revealed that a member of NHMRC’s expert committee overseeing the review process – Professor Fred Mendelsohn – confirmed the missing report to be high quality saying, “I am impressed by the rigor, thoroughness and systematic approach given to this evaluation [….] Overall, a lot of excellent work has gone into this review and the results are presented in a systematic, unbiased and convincing manner.”

The Missing Report

“I am impressed by the rigor, thoroughness and systematic approach given to this evaluation [….] Overall, a lot of excellent work has gone into this review and the results are presented in a systematic, unbiased and convincing manner.”

Prof Fred Mendelsohn
Member of NHMRC’s Expert Committee

The missing first report

NHMRC’s investigation into Homeopathy ran from 2010 to 2015, aiming to review the evidence on homeopathy to inform the Australian public.
NHMRC worked with an external contractor – a respected Australian University – from April 2012 to August 2012. The report they produced was called ‘A Systematic Review of the Evidence on the Effectiveness of Homeopathy’.

This review, paid for by Australian tax payers, was never made public and NHMRC continues to refuse to release it, despite repeated Freedom of Information requests. After terminating the contract with the Australian University, a second external contractor – OptumInsight – was hired to do the Homeopathy review again from December 2012-March 2015.

Second time lucky?

Having binned the first report, the second time around NHMRC invented a completely new way of analysing the evidence which has never been used before by any research team in the world.

NHMRC decided that for trials to be ‘reliable’ they had to have at least 150 participants and reach an unusually high threshold for quality. This is despite the fact that NHMRC itself routinely conducts studies with less than 150 participants.

These unprecedented and unscientific rules meant the results of 171 of the trials were completely disregarded as being ‘unreliable’, leaving only 5 trials NHMRC considered to be ‘reliable’. As they assessed all 5 of these trials as negative, this explains how NHMRC could conclude that there was no ‘reliable’ evidence, and falsely justify claims that homeopathy is no more than a placebo.

 

Why?

NHMRC are world experts in reviewing evidence, conducting reviews as a matter of routine.

So, if there is truly no reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective for any condition, wouldn’t they have got this result just by conducting the review once, in the usual way, using a standard widely-accepted scientific method. One has to ask:

  • Why do it twice?
  • Why remove all traces of the first report?
  • Why invent a method even NHMRC has never used for any other review, ever?
  • What are they trying to hide?

 

 

 

What can we do?

The disturbing story of the Australian Report suggests that, contrary to the insistence of anti-homeopathy ‘skeptic’ groups and many media stories, there is reliable positive evidence that homeopathy works for some medical conditions, which is not being reported to the public.

As homeopathy continues to grow in popularity globally, the public needs to know what evidence exists for this treatment, so they can make informed choices about their healthcare.

An Ombudsman challenge is currently in progress, requiring NHMRC to answer charges of scientific misconduct, procedural breaches, bias and conflict of interest. It is great to see democracy in action, holding NHMRC to account, but in the meantime the Australian Report continues to do unfair damage to the sector.

This is why the public needs to see the first review. To fully understand the Australian Report that is having such a profound impact around the world, we need to see what answers they got the first time they did it.

Demand that NHMRC RELEASE THE FIRST REPORT

 

For a full breakdown of the flaws in NHMRC’s Report on Homeopathy, take a look at the analysis carried out by the Homeopathy Research Institute.