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It has happened to someone I know that a doctor prescribed them homeopathic treatment without explaining what homeopathy is (or even mentioning the word). Is this legal?

This was done by a licensed family doctor, and the prescription is on the standard prescription form, with stamp. The prescription simply mentions the brand name of the medicine. One could not tell that this is homeopathic just by looking at the prescription, unless already familiar with this specific pill. The person to whom this medicine was prescribed was not aware of what homeopathy was, nor did the doctor discuss this. They were simply told that this pill will make them better. I noticed what it was only when I saw the medicine box, clearly labelled as "homeopathic medicine".

I understand that many patients will ask for alternative medicine, but this case is different because the patient simply trusted the doctor, and was not aware of what they were receiving. I do not see how this is at all different from quackery or fraud. Is it legal?

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  • This happened in Germany, but I will leave the question open to answers from any jurisdiction.
    – Szabolcs
    Oct 25 '21 at 16:09
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    In England it is not uncommon for doctors to feel that they can be less that candid with patients if they (the doctor) thinks it in the patient's interest to be less than candid. It seems unethical to me but it happens. E.G. a doctor might prescribe coloured water (i.e. harmless substance with no active ingredient) relying on the placebo effect for a patient who is worried they are ill but the doctor believes they are healthy. According to orthodox medicine, homeopathic remedies contain no active ingredients so this is a similar idea I guess. What the law says about it I do not know
    – Nemo
    Oct 25 '21 at 18:17
  • Note that just because homeopathy as a whole is ineffective, does not imply that every individual medication labeled "homeopathic" is ineffective. It is possible that there actually exists good evidence for the safety and effectiveness of this particular substance, and that for whatever reason, a homeopathic brand happens to be a convenient way to obtain it. It does not follow that the doctor is basing the prescription on the actual principles of homeopathy. Oct 26 '21 at 1:25
  • Also, it is true that some homeopathic products based on dilution may contain negligible or undetectable amounts of the supposed active ingredient. But again, that is not necessarily the case for every product labeled "homeopathic medicine". Oct 26 '21 at 1:27
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    @NateEldredge No. If it says "homeopathic medicine" that means it does not contain any active ingredient with known medical effect (in quantitites that could have an effect). That is specifically what the label says. Of course patients can still become better when taking the medicine through some version of natural healing and the placebo effect but that does not imply that some homeopathic medicine actually has medically proven effects. They do not. Otherwise the label would say what the medically proven effects are instead of saying homeopathy.
    – quarague
    Oct 26 '21 at 7:16
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Yes, it’s legal

Homeopathic “medicines” contain no active ingredients so they are effectively placebos. Placebo work for some patients some of the time but they don’t work if the patient knows what they are. For them to be effective they have to be kept secret. Most doctors from time-to-time and for various reasons prescribe placebos.

The ethics of this practice is debatable but the legality isn’t - it’s totally legal.

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  • If the medication is ineffective or inappropriate for the patient's condition, according to widely accepted standards, couldn't that constitute malpractice? It is "legal" in the sense that it's not a crime, but it could still be a tort, or the equivalent in German law. Oct 26 '21 at 1:29
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    @NateEldredge and what harm has the patient suffered by drinking water (which is what homeopathic medicines are)?
    – Dale M
    Oct 26 '21 at 2:29
  • I see, I guess I was assuming this product was prescribed in place of some more effective therapy. In which case the malpractice would lie in neglecting to prescribe an effective therapy, not in prescribing the homeopathic remedy per se. Oct 26 '21 at 2:36
  • Good answer. Note - There are studies showing placebos working in some cases even when the patient knows. health.harvard.edu/blog/… Oct 26 '21 at 2:43
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This depends on the circumstances and the medical condition involved. A doctor is required to offer treatment in line with generally accepted medical practice, or explain why his or her treatment is outside of those limits. Failing to do so may be grounds for a malpractice suit if harm results.

If the patient has a serious condition in need of effective treatment, and such treatment is possible, using a placebo instead may well constitute malpractice.

If a patient does not have an actual medical condition, offering a placebo and charging for it may be fraud. This would be particularly true if the patient is encouraged to come back, and the doctor will profit from additional visits.

In some cases a doctor is required to obtain informed consent for treatment, and the situation described in the question does not meet that standard.

Laws on this point do vary in different jurisdictions, this answer, while not specific, is from a US perspective.

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