In the November issue of Lancet magazine, homeopathic products have been declared ineffective, citing many revisions of scientific studies carried out in the last few years. Even if we assume that this debate can be reopened on a political as well as a scientific and academic level – especially concerning government funding – it will still be difficult to foresee what effects such a statement will have on the public perception. The choice to use homeopathic products or not is the result of many considerations, and scientific evidence that supports of rejects homeopathic therapy is just one of them. Just as important are expert advice and the comparison between the potential risks of taking conventional and alternative medicine.
A recent survey taken by the Science in Society Monitor clearly demonstrates these aspects. It shows that homeopathic products are relatively popular in Italy.
One Italian in every three makes at least occasional use of homeopathic products to treat their health problems, and just under one in every ten does so with a certain frequency.
In the majority of cases (75%) Italians are attracted to these products because they believe them to have fewer side-effects than conventional medicines. One user in every five is convinced that they are also more medically efficacious.
On the other hand, the study reveals that Italians are discouraged from using homeopathic medicines not so much by the lack of scientific proof of their effectiveness – important for only 17% of non-users – as by the fact than no-one, not even their doctors, had ever recommended such products to them (52%).
But, perhaps the most surprising finding concerns the long-standing issue of whether homeopathy use is due to ignorance and a rejection of the scientific principles underpinning conventional pharmacology.
The typical user of homeopathic products – well-educated, resident in the north, female – seems to gainsay this stereotype. Two in every three women with secondary educations resident in the north use homeopathic products. The lowest endorsement of homeopathy is expressed by low-educated males resident in the south (fewer than one in ten). Nor does recourse to homeopathic medicines seem due to prejudice against conventional ones, with which they are usually alternated or combined: only two Italians in every hundred treat themselves exclusively with homeopathic products.
The Science in Society Monitor is an initiative by Observa Science in Society supported by the the Foundation Compagnia di San Paolo.
The research supervisors are Massimiano Bucchi (University of Trento), Federico Neresini and Giuseppe Pellegrini (University of Padua), in association with Valeria Arzenton.
The survey was conducted by means of CATI-method telephone interviews with a sample of 900 subjects, stratified by gender, age, and geographical area of residence, and representing the Italian population aged 15 and over.