What entices consumers to use Homeopathic Medicine?

Written by Renee Bruce & Lynette Fergusson
homeopathy5Most people you ask would rate being healthy as one of the top priorities in their life. Being unhealthy impacts people’s lives in so many ways, ie: they might not live to see their kids grow up, they can’t take the dog for a walk, they suffer from constant aches and pains. The discussion about health and how to become, or stay, healthy is therefore one of the most talked about topics in societies. There are many options to help people be healthy ranging from the traditional science of medicine to the age-old philosophy of alternative therapies.

Traditional medicine is a very regulated profession. We frequently hear of the modern miracles health care professionals perform. We also hear about the tragedies that occur either by negligence or some unfortunate outcome. Modern medicine is, after all, a science, and is therefore not infallible. Neither are the people who practice medicine – they are human – and like all humans, can make mistakes.

Alternative therapies such as naturopathy, homeopathy and kinesiology have been practiced for centuries but these methods of healing are not recognised as a science in the traditional sense. And what about the alternative therapy health care practitioners? How well regulated are they and how often do we hear about miracles they have facilitated or negligence claims against them? Like the scientific model of medicine, alternative medicine is also not infallible and the practitioners are human too and can make mistakes yet these alternative health care practitioners are almost untouchable from the arms of the healthcare regulators. Or are they?

After two years of research, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) recently handed down their formal position statement on the status of homeopathy. The nation’s peak medical research body declared there were “no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective” (NH&MRC). In going one step further, the head of the NH&MRC has criticised pharmacists for continuing to “flog homeopathy to patients” knowing there is no evidence that it works (AusDoc). So where does that leave homeopathy and the thousands of people who rely on this form of therapy to feel healthy?

The debate about the efficacy of complementary and alternative medicines has raged for decades in the medical arena, occasionally bubbling over into the media. That, however, hasn’t stopped consumers who, for whatever reason – be it a distrust in modern medicine or those looking for another option to improve their health – from seeking alternative ways of healing. The question is why?

Perhaps it is clever marketing? Perhaps those of us who work under the traditional healthcare model of evidence based medicine are missing something? Complementary and alternative medicines are frequently promoted with a promise modern medicine often cannot deliver. Is that the lure? Maybe it’s the relative ease with which you can purchase these products without a costly trip to the doctor?

Certainly the traditional medical model is much more conservative when it comes to promoting benefits or positive outcomes. Any such benefits are required by law to be balanced by the more serious – albeit often infrequent – adverse outcomes. Processes such as gaining informed consent for procedures that may cause harm can seem like a lot of rigmarole, but they really do help patients make an informed decision about what they are about to undergo. These types of processes are less regulated in alternative medicine where often an explanation is all that is undertaken with no formal documentation of the discussion and decision made by the consumer.

As stated earlier, maybe it’s the ease of obtaining a medicinal solution that appeals to those seeking alternative therapies? One doesn’t have to navigate the complicated web of GP referrals to specialists and waiting on lengthy waiting lists – even for private consultations. Instead the consumer has much more control over their own health destiny.

These days healthcare consumers have so much information at their fingertips that helps them to make decisions about the treatment pathway they wish to take when they feel unwell. They also have much wider access to a variety of treatment options, either in traditional medicine or alternative therapies. In the search for a remedy they may well have encountered the traditional medical professionals but not found a suitable resolution to their ailment. Word of mouth amongst friends often leads people to consider other forms of health care, including visiting alternative medicine practitioners such as a homoeopathist. Or they may have done their own Dr Google search for a solution and seen the numerous websites extolling the virtues of homeopathic medicines over traditional medicines. And so they make their decision.

After all, how bad can homeopathic medicines be for you? They are natural substances so logic tells us that they must be good for us, or at least can’t do us any harm. Clearly people aren’t discussing substances such as cyanide or arsenic or botulin toxin when they consider natural therapies, but these substances are all equally naturally occurring but all deadly in the right doses.

So there must be something else that appeals to consumers about homeopathy even in the face of hard evidence that there is in fact no evidence to support its use. That something has to be related to the belief systems of those who practice homeopathy and to those consumers who use it to feel healthy.

Belief systems are personal, they are owned by the individual and they often defy the logic of modern society. For those who work in the marketing world, the ability to tap into these belief systems would enable companies to gain life-long consumer followers. But marketing does need to take an ethical position when it comes to marketing products of questionable value to the consumer.

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11 thoughts on “What entices consumers to use Homeopathic Medicine?

  1. Hi Renee & Lynette,

    Great post. My mother is heavily interested in alternative medicines, as a man of science I’ve often questioned the rise of this trend. My favourite quote on this topic:
    “Alternative medicine is medicine that has been proven not to work, or has not yet been proven to work. Do you know what alternative medicine that has been proven to work is called? . . . Medicine.”

    Ive seen many explanations for this shift in consumer behaviour from rising mistrust of the medical fraternity to greater acceptance from peers when admitting to the use of alternate treatments.

    I agree with your sentiment that marketers must take an ethical approach when it comes to health care. While I can live with chiropractors and acupuncturists advertising their services I can’t live with naturopaths suggesting people fore-go necessary surgery in favour of snake oil.

    Perhaps traditional health care providers and governments need to do more marketing to ensure that consumers are adequately informed about their choices and the value that can be gained by utilizing conventional medicine, this may help to halt or reverse this shift in consumer behaviour.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for your comment. Renee and I both work in the health industry are we are both required to promote health care that has an evidence base. Interesting though, in tracking through some of the commentary on the NH&MRC’s report on the efficacy of homeopathy, a number of Doctors have pointed out that there are a number of “medical” treatments that also have limited or no solid proof of efficacy. We could end up opening the proverbial can of worms if we restrict ourselves to requiring only evidence based medicines I guess. I don’t have a concern about the use of alternative medicines per se, but completely agree with you on the issue of people being talked out of appropriate and proven medical care for a treatment that has no basis. It can be a very emotive topic though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Renee and Lynette,

    Great post to start a discussion. Homeopathy is definitely an interesting alternative therapy. The concept that the continual dilution of an ingredient ‘activates’ the ingredient further seems very contrary to modern medicine, and common sense for that matter.

    My thought is, if you dilute salt into increasing amounts of water, it gets less salty…..

    I would suggest the appeal of alternative therapies has benefitted greatly from a certain degree of discontent in the medical model. There are endless stories of doctors that run considerably late for appointments, have a poor bedside manner and charge significantly for their consultations.

    This does not bode well for a consumer, especially a time poor, stress out and sick one.

    The alternative is a practitioner who takes the time to listen to your problems, work out a plan for you and gives you a remedy. It may only the water but the placebo effect is amazingly powerful. With a positive experience, word of mouth referrals in these scenarios is extremely significant.

    ‘You should go see my Homeopath (chiropractor, naturopath, acupuncturist), he is amazing!”

    Like Dan and yourselves, my concern with alternative therapies is the potential that a person is advised to forgo important and necessary medical management.

    I could really open the ‘can of worms’ and mention vaccination!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Van,
      Thanks for your response. I like your comment about the “bedside” manner or communication styles of the different practitioners. I think that many doctors are now starting to really understand the importance of effective communication, including active listening and taking extra time to ensure that their consumers are fully informed about their treatment plans. This is something that alternative medicine practitioners have generally done very well. There are many reasons for the past differences but it’s encouraging to see that the main focus now for all groups of practitioners is on improving the consumer experience.
      Renee

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  4. What really motivates people to buy these medicines, a strong argument is the belief system that dictates that its natural and therefore, won’t have any side effects so whats bad in giving it a shot, in the mean time body repairs itself of ailments(in most of the cases) and this in turn, produces a chain effect of flattery for medicine or ‘positive word of mouth’. It will be interesting to see what will be the effect of NH&MRC report on the people’s perception for homeopathy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Many allied health professions are registered under AHPRA (www.ahpra.gov.au), alongside medical practitioners. There is much confusion when the terms ‘allied health’, ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ are used interchangeably.
    Allied health professions, like chiropractic, are often used by consumers as a ‘last resort’ because they haven’t been completely satisified with traditional medicine, or they want to give themselves a better chance of getting better by combining two modes of healthcare: medicine and CAM. Acupuncture, despite the cry of lacking evidence from some circles, is heavily encouraged in medical streams like IVF.

    If the health providers have open communication, to monitor patient progress, this can work well – Medicare has a Chronic Disease Management programme to encourage this.

    Ultimately, consumers, as patients, have a choice as to their preferred method of healthcare. While the registration of 15 health professions provides consumers with some form of protection, you’re right that it’s those outside those registered areas of practice which leave consumers somewhat vulnerable to misinformation or mistreatment.

    (disclaimer: I work for the Chiropractors’ Association)

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  6. The marketing crux of this blog that I can see is the idea that marketers must work with a consumers beliefs to sell them products. And they must do this ethically. The problem is belief cannot be worked ethically. Belief is based in ignorance, if it wasn’t it would be belief, it would be fact.

    Marketing against an already formed strong belief is a waste of time. The belief, right or wrong has already been reasoned by the person. If what they are being told already fits their belief then they would be purchasing already anyway. If what they are being told does not fit into this belief it must be wrong, and so they won’t purchase.

    When I mention ignorance I am not meaning it in an offensive way. Medicine is difficult to know and to learn about. Therefore the ignorance I refer to is a passive ignorance; not based on a belief (active ignorance) but an inability to know. Either way it is ignorance.

    This opens up a beautiful angle for marketers. Marketers cannot change fact, they can hide it, dance around it, manipulate it but at its base it cannot be changed. This is probably why you don’t see adverts for triple by-pass surgery. They can play with ignorance though, and they do it so beautifully in the natural medicine area.

    Marketing on passive ignorance is easy. As long as it sounds right and the source sounds reputable and authoritative it must be true. Bang your drum long and loud enough and someone will listen. This will catch many more people for exactly the reason you state. It may not be good for me but it shouldn’t be bad for me, I may as well give it a go. Ignorance.
    Not that the marketer cares. They’ve done their job and sold a product. The health benefits of the product are moot.

    Is this marketing done ethically though? Of course not. What the marketers are doing may cause no physical harm (unless the person was actually very sick and relying on this medicine, these are extreme cases though not the norm). What they are offering may be natural and okay to ingest. They are still lying and for the most degenerate reason; to make money. And doing it in the most degenerate way; by preying on people’s lack of knowledge.

    Never market against active ignorance, you’ll get nowhere. Market against passive ignorance though and you can use people’s lack of knowledge to make lots of money, just don’t try to hang onto your soul while doing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great insights, thank you! As a Nurse & registered with AHPRA, you see & are exposed to things that can change you’re perspective. It’s reassuring to see that coomunication is being taken seriously & has changed since I started my training back in the mid 80s. I agree that any therapy needs to be backed by evidence. In some cases this is easy, for example nutirtional deficiencies. It would be great if ALL therpies were subject to rigorous, INDEPENDENT testing. Drug companies publish results of drug trials, however you don’t always get the full picture. Massive marketing influences here too. Chinese medicine as been around for thousands of years. Herbal remedies were common, you went to an Apothecary, which morphed into the modern day pharmacy over time.
    Thanks Ben for your comments on ethical marketing. I’m a bit of a sceptic too!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I think ethics is a pretty important concept in marketing in the health fields. A consumer who has little understanding of anatomy, physiology and health, can be very easily influenced by marketing. They are often looking for fixes to their ailments and are often under some duress when making decisions. They are in pain, suffering from discomfort or are unwell, and are looking for solutions.

    Their decision making process may be compromised somewhat and I think it is important, from a health professional point of view, to ensure marketing is ethical. The AHPRA guidelines on advertising and marketing put significant limitations on the type and amount of advertising health professionals are able to use.

    The regulations on alternative therapies are not so strict! Consumers may find themselves victims of to unscrupulous operators.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Confusion reigns among our consumers when it comes to health care. I agree lissa – what constitutes an Allied Health Professional in the eyes of a non-health care consumer would be daunting to work out.

    Thank you all for your points above. Ethics in marketing is a difficult avenue to take I guess. You make a good point nkraskov about drug companies and independent testing of their drugs – we have seen examples of quasi science here too from time to time and a few big court case payouts as well.

    Ethics in health marketing have been questioned recently with other drug manufacturers too, take the manufacturer of Nurofen for example, they are facing court action by the ACCC for “false and misleading claims” with labels of seemingly different Nurofen products being targeted directly at “back pain”, “migraine” and “period pain” – all of which contain exactly the same active ingredient. Perhaps they were relying on the “belief” Ben was referring to?

    I think you are absolutely right Ben about those who “believe” in these or other alternative medicines – marketers can appeal to their belief systems in making products attractive. We have all seen the arguments from those who are for or against vaccinations – a point vantran made earlier. There is boundless strong evidence that vaccinations work to prevent many serious illnesses from being prevalent in our community (whooping cough, measles, small pox) and yet there are those who refuse to be persuaded by that proof – because of their own belief systems that it is better to catch the disease to gain ‘natural’ immunity – given one doesn’t die during the process.

    Then again there is mind-over-matter. The placebo effect is real and there is no harm in that, except that it won’t cover all health eventualities. So marketing does need to have some boundaries to cover those eventualities where it does matter which path the health consumer takes.

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  10. Human beings are far from perfectly rational and pursuing remedies that according to all available evidence do not work seems to strengthen this claim. Perhaps there are other reasons why consumers continue to buy into these remedies.

    Traditional medicine is conservative and steers away from making wild unproven claims about miracle cures. It is heavily regulated and requires consumers to be informed about both the positive and negative effects of their treatments.

    Maybe hope is what homeopathy really sells, hope for those with terminal illnesses that are beyond the reach of modern medicine. What clients want is to feel healthy and the perception of alternative treatments as natural helps them achieve this. Where does it leave homeopathy and other alternative treatments if that hope is false hope? What if consumers choose alternative treatments that do not work over tied and tested modern medicine?

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