Jun 10 2010

Death by Homeopathy

No, I am not talking about homeopathic suicide, which is entirely benign (except to the reputation of homeopathy). Rather, every now and then a prominent case pops up in which someone dies of a treatable condition because they chose (or their caregivers chose) to rely exclusively on homeopathy or some other alternative treatment. Since most homeopathic preparations are literally nothing but water and wishful thinking, they typically do not cause direct toxicity (hence the “homeopathic suicide” stunts of skeptics). Most of the harm from homeopathy comes from something far more insidious – confusing people with appealing medical fairy tales.

These cases also occur on a backdrop of inadequate regulation. Essentially those who wish to make money by practicing medicine without proper training have managed to soften the laws so that they are able to practice medicine without proper training. The usual defenders of consumers against rapacious industry are so beguiled by the touchy-feely rhetoric of promoters, that they have been entirely asleep at the switch. The results are predictable.

The latest case to come to media attention comes from down under – Penelope Dingle from Perth Australia, according to local news reports, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2003. Her doctors gave her a good chance of survival with standard therapy – surgery to remove the cancer, and chemotherapy to mop up any loose cells and reduce the risk of recurrence. It is not a pleasant prospect, but with modern care it’s not too bad, and it buys in many cases a greatly improved quality and duration of life. Penelope Dingle, however, chose to refuse all science-based treatment and opted instead for a regimen of diet and homeopathic treatment.

But the story gets more interesting. Her husband is a bit of a media celebrity in Australia – a self-promoting and self-proclaimed expert on toxicology and alternative health. According to reports:

She said she had been told by one of the couple’s close friends that the Dingles had a pact with the homeopath treating Dingle, Francine Scrayen.

Under the pact, they agreed that only alternative medicine would be used and Dr Dingle would then write a book about curing his wife’s cancer.

Mrs Brown said that under the agreement, Dr Dingle would look after his wife’s vitamin and antioxidant treatment and Ms Scrayen would deal with homeopathy treatments and diet.

Apparently there are diaries in evidence to substantiate this – probably because Dr. Dingle was planning on writing that book (I wonder how that’s going). I suspect he did not want his wife to use any conventional treatment so that they could later claim she was cured entirely with their alternative treatments. It certainly seems as if he put his career and future book potential ahead of his wife’s health and best interests.


Giving evidence at Dingle’s inquest yesterday before West Australian Coroner Alastair Hope, her sister Toni Brown said seeing Dingle in 2003 was like watching “somebody being tortured”.

Not only was Penelope Dingle allowed to die, according to reports she was allowed to remain in pain without the benefit of even pain killers.  That’s the kind of thing that can happen when you blithely reject our entire system of medical ethics and science-based practice.

This is also, unfortunately, not an isolated case. Remember the case of Gloria Thomas Sam – the little girl whose parents tortured to death with homeopathy.

These cases are just anecdotal. I present them not as the evidence for the worthlessness of homeopathy, but rather as anecdotes that demonstrate the evidence. The evidence is in the published literature – systematic reviews of systematic reviews show that homeopathy does not work for any indication. When anyone with the slightest objectivity and scientific knowledge examines homeopathy they can only conclude that not only does it not work – it cannot work. It is IBAR (a variation of FUBAR) – implausible beyond all reason.

Therefore prescribing homeopathy is incompetent and/or unethical. Reliance upon homeopathy instead of conventional treatment for a serious illness is unethical to the point of criminality – akin to depraved indifference.

Homeopathy represents perhaps the greatest disconnect between the scientific community and the public and regulators. Science has definitively spoken – homeopathy is dangerous witchcraft. But most countries treat it as if it were real medicine.

It’s time we got our 21st century medical system in line with 19th century science.

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