As a society, it seems, we have never been so well disposed to the attractions of holistic alternative therapies. And with this thirst for the new, there remains a strong resistance from the establishment. I recently spent a day exploring homeopathy at the grass roots with Annie Hutchison, Registered Homeopath, one of the South West's busy practitioners and her patients.
Kyle is five-years-old, curious as he explores the room where, since arriving with his mother a few minutes ago, he has already upended a large charity stamp box and climbed over most of the chairs and tables surrounding us. Now, he's delving into Annie Hutchison's Gladstone bag and, with obvious delight and no little effort, hauling out one of the substantial reference books that resides there with several other learned tomes. Proud of his achievement, he offers the book to Annie. Unfazed, she thanks him kindly and takes the offering before, to obvious relief and effusive apologies, the toddler bounds back to his mother's side.
'The change came like a flick of a switch after he took the remedy,' says Mum as the youngster climbs into her lap, 'and now, I think,' she adds with a smile, 'we're probably due for some more.' Later, explaining how she is convinced that homeopathy has improved the child's behaviour, she assures us that he's just play-acting in front of the person who, though he probably doesn't realise it, seems to have solved a problem where conventional healthcare had failed.
The work of a homeopath
We're in a room at Down Ampney Village Hall where, once a week, amongst the paraphernalia of the village's part-time post office and wartime aviation memorabilia, Annie Hutchison, registered homeopath, holds a clinic. I've joined her today to learn about the work of a homeopath at the often-controversial frontline of alternative therapy.
Earlier, before her first patient arrived, Annie described the background to homeopathy, how the name is derived from the Latin homeo (for same) and pathos (suffering) and goes back to 18th Century Germany and Samuel Hahnemann's efforts to cure his daughter's malarial fever. A physician who was disillusioned with the then-conventional medical techniques of bloodletting, arsenic and purging, Hahnemann chanced to discover that Cinchona bark caused him to develop symptoms of malarial fever. Subsequently, by the administration of small quantities of remedy to his daughter, her illness was cured. With a moment's inspiration, homeopathy was born and Hahnemann began years of experimentation with water-based preparations, from 'mother tinctures' that are repeatedly succussed (shaken) until the resulting dilute solution is potentised with the healing imprinted 'memory' of the initial material.
Strongly polarised views about homeopathy's efficacy
Nowadays, homeopathy arouses strongly polarised views about its efficacy, with the main opposition coming, not surprisingly, from the conventional medical establishment. Before I met Annie, an unostentatious woman who exudes reassurance like a helpful librarian or a caring social worker, I realised I'd struggle to get to the bottom of the debate in one day. On the believers' side, there's passionate belief that homeopathy offers viable alternatives to conventional medicine and that it is targeted for threatening to derail the pharmaceutical industry's gravy train. The establishment, on the other hand, generally dismisses the claimed effectiveness of homeopathy as a placebo effect allied to the benefits of counselling – and makes frequent claims that continued research wastes time, money and resources. Yet, though its doctors can't prescribe homeopathic remedies, the NHS operates five homeopathic hospitals and more GPs appear to be becoming sympathetic to the therapy.
When Kyle and his Mum have left, we wait for the next appointment and Annie describes how she got into homeopathy. I'm struck by how she never once mentions 'the money' as she explains how, managing homes for the recovering mentally-ill and a day centre for clients with a range of disabilities, she was bothered by the volume of conventional drugs consumed and how, despite these, many patients simply became sicker.
'I was terribly frustrated,' Annie explained, 'to see how little they were listened to and how quickly GPs resorted to the 'quick fix' of prescription drugs. And then there was my husband's long illness and the failure of conventional medicine before a homeopath solved his problems.'
Life events like these led Annie to embark on her four-year training. Now, as a member of the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths (the UK's other professional bodies are the Homeopathic Medical Association and the Society of Homeopaths), she practices in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, lectures extensively and even appears on local radio occasionally.
The interaction between homeopathy and conventional medicine
If one word sums-up Annie Hutchison it is 'care' – from her client manner to her philosophies and background, working with the recovering mentally ill and people with disabilities. During our time together, I repeatedly see this attribute as we meet the full spectrum of Cotswold folk - the young, old, male, female, wealthy and not-so-wealthy patients who attend a typical surgery. And as the day continues, I also notice Annie's surprisingly pragmatic view of the interaction between homeopathy and conventional medicine. During my research for our meeting, I often found sceptics dismissing homeopathy as 'tosh' and 'bunkum'. Annie, however, recognises the role that both play and how the NHS is 'fantastic' for those blue light emergencies that everyone, statistically, will encounter twice in their lifetime. Encouraged by the way the NHS homeopathic hospitals combine conventional treatment with homeopathy, she is also well-versed in stories, similar to those I'd already encountered, of GP's practices that have tried and benefited from homeopathy before pulling the project when the cost-savings upset their drug company suppliers.
Never more relevant to modern society's needs
The modern homeopath has some 3000 remedies at their disposal, ranging from Hahnemann's originals to treatments, based on modern vaccines, used to counter reactions to childhood vaccinations. These, she believes, as we move onto the 'hot issues' in homeopathy, often lead to behavioural irregularities for youngsters like Kyle and his peers. It seems to me that, as a therapy to address childhood vaccinations, attention deficit disorders and infertility, homeopathy has never been more relevant to modern society's needs. As so many people increasingly turn to alternative therapies for everything from workplace-induced stress to respiratory conditions, could it be that the desire for something purer than another chemical fix is striking a timely chord?
While homeopathic principles have changed little since Hahnemann's time, and alternative remedies enjoy unprecedented interest, the polarised views on the subject, often fuelled by vexatious media, continue. At least today, the opposition will only be verbal or commercial, unlike the physical abuse that drove Hahnemann to exile in Paris. How interesting then, that, while the French national health service wholeheartedly embraces homeopathy, NHS GPs cannot prescribe homeopathic treatment.
A skilled active listener
Another client arrives for her first consultation. As I watch Annie working, I reflect on what she earlier told me about Hahnemann's interrogative, dictatorial approach. While some high-profile homeopaths, such as George Voulikas, have worked similarly, Annie's approach, like many of her contemporaries, follows the subtler methodologies of counselling rather than those of medical autocracy. It's a methodology that she clearly demonstrates during an initial consultation lasting, as is typical, nearly one and a half hours. During this time, I see how, gently encouraging her patient to talk, she builds a comprehensive picture of their prevailing physical and emotional state. As I watch, I see not an interrogator, but a skilled active listener: an open-ended question to get conversation flowing here, a nod of the head or an encouraging murmur of agreement to keep it moving there. And when, as sometimes happens, her visitor hesitates, it's often a studied pause that elicits a final, crucial, piece of information.
Annie regularly makes herself available for 'after hours' advice
Then, Annie starts the process known as reportorisation, during which she carefully considers what she has heard, consults her reference books or even mulls over the situation for a day or more before determining a suitable remedy. And afterwards, unlike some homeopaths who restrict client contact to formal consultations and set times for telephone calls, Annie regularly makes herself available for 'after hours' advice.
'It's always seemed logical,' she explains. 'Some homoeopathists avoid it, but for me it's part of the package I offer to complement the remedies themselves.'
The growing public acceptance of homeopathy
We briefly discuss the future of homeopathy in the UK and how it could evolve in one of two ways in the future – either tolerated by the medical establishment because of its huge popular following or with prohibitively expensive licensing being forced on the government by the all-powerful pharmaceutical companies. At the moment, Annie believes, the latter is unlikely due to the growing public acceptance of homeopathy.
Before I can delve deeper, another client arrives. Twenty minutes later, as he leaves, the practical no-nonsense countryman describes his absolute belief in homeopathy - and Annie. Later, Annie tells me that the majority of her clients come to her by referral, and that in many cases new clients are the once-disbelieving partners and friends of her clients.
'Just like the case of the renowned homeopath, Constantine Herring,' she adds, 'who set out to disprove it and ended up as one of its strongest advocates. It often happens like that.'
Homeopathy has actually evolved out of rigorous empirical method
Later, another patient describes for me – unprompted – a BBC programme in which a leading conventional physician, setting out to dismiss homeopathy, ultimately convinced himself that it worked. As Annie and I discuss the debate about homeopathy's effectiveness I learn that, though the therapy promotes vigorous discussion in a medical world where evidence-based medicine holds such sway, homeopathy has actually evolved out of rigorous empirical method - with 'proving' by qualitative research study and pragmatic observational clinical studies both being employed from the start. The latter, innovative in Hahnemann's day, is still recognised as an important part of good clinical reflective practice.
My background research also indicated the homeopathy establishment's willingness to accept that some of the available 'meta-analyses' are inconclusive and the need for further research. These also, it appears, present evidence that supports homeopathy's claims of efficacy beyond mere placebo effects. What's also clear is that many people benefit from homeopathy and that there is huge opposition by the vested interest of the medical establishment. There are also suggestions that even the most high profile of investigations into homeopathy may be criticised for flawed methodology such as 'cherry-picking' results that don't support homeopathy.
Homeopathy's side-effects are generally limited
'How many people,' Annie asks, 'have been harmed by insufficiently tested conventional medicines?' The question, evoking images of Thalidomide and other medical disasters, sits powerfully with the acceptance – by both sides – that homeopathy's side-effects are generally limited to the homeopathic reaction of the 'like cures like' process that may briefly accentuate symptoms before the cure is effected.
Too soon, as our time together ends, I realise that, like so many things, there is a lot to homeopathy, maybe a lot that we still have to learn and understand. But today, at the grass roots of alternative medicine, I have to work on the evidence presented to me and what I see is a committed, highly trained and passionate carer, no 'snake oil' saleswoman but a quintessential 'people person' who has earned a strong rapport with her many clients. Before I leave, and just after she has revealed a secret passion for playing the bagpipes, I ask Annie about her personal and professional philosophies. Then I watch as she struggles to give me the deep and meaningful answer I am seeking – not because the answer eludes her, but because it is actually so simple.
'A way that I can make a real difference'
'It's like my philosophy for life,' she explains eventually, 'trying to do my best to help others, and improve their lot. It's simple; I've seen a way that I can make a real difference.'
'To help them by sharing their suffering. Like "homeo" and "pathos"? ' I suggest.
'Then using my knowledge and experience to help alleviate it, ' she adds before I leave, convinced that Samuel Hahnemann would have been proud of Annie Hutchison - and rather impressed.
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