The Ethics of Promoting Homeopathic Remedies

The use of complementary and alternative medicine is increasing and integrative" health care is changing the face of retail pharmacy.

Twenty years ago, I graduated pharmacy school and began my career in a grocery store pharmacy. In those days, my patients weren’t asking many questions about homeopathic remedies or other complementary or alternative medicines.

Sure, there were plenty of questions about supplements and OTC cough-and-cold products, but the pharmacy shelves weren’t loaded with homeopathic remedies.

Well, times have changed.

“Integrated” pharmacies are popping up everywhere, changing the face of retail pharmacy. Driven largely by economic factors, public fascination, and demand for alternative treatments, these pharmacies claim to offer a holistic approach to medical care and “integrate” homeopathic and “natural” products with conventional medicine, all the while blurring the line between pseudoscience and evidence-based medicine.

Let’s face it: pharmacies are in business to make money. But should pharmacists be selling so-called “natural” or homeopathic remedies only a few feet away from the pharmacy counter, simply because they’re trendy and patients want them?

The differences between evidence-based drugs on pharmacy shelves and homeopathic remedies aren’t always clear to patients, and placing them so close together gives them an air of credibility that they may not deserve. Most patients believe that when they purchase a product from a pharmacist, it has met certain standards of safety and efficacy and the product labeling claims are accurate and truthful.

In a perfect world, ethics would preclude pharmacists from selling non-evidence-based supplements. Unfortunately, not all pharmacists feel they can financially afford to take the moral high ground.

While pharmacists working in large chain pharmacies have little or no influence over the range of products on sale, they don’t have to actively encourage patients to buy homeopathic remedies, and I believe they have an obligation to educate their patients, which is central to the ethical codes for the pharmacy profession.

Hospitals are also now offering these products, and pharmacy schools and community colleges are introducing complementary and alternative medicine courses and certification. In fact, it’s considered a sign of closed-mindedness to question the benefits of alternative therapies.

That said, pharmacists need to be more outspoken about the lack of evidence of efficacy for many homeopathic remedies. Scientifically unsupported products can lead individuals to forgo effective treatments.

Pharmacists continue to win patients’ trust, but in the long run, I believe the trend towards “integrated” pharmacy isn’t good for our profession or the patients we serve.