© The Press
2 April, 1988
Popular interest in alternative therapies has become so widespread recently that even members of the traditionally conservative medical profession now take an interest in some of them.
A few general practitioners are offering treatments that might have had them on the mat before their professional body to explain themselves 20 years ago.
One Christchurch medical specialist who has studied many of the alternative possibilities has built up a busy practice offering a three-fold path of treatment.
Dr. Wendy Isbell, a qualified physician, treats her patients with a combination of regular medicine, homeopathic remedies and psychosomatic medicine. She sees herself as a bridge between conventional medicine and the healing arts.
Dr. Isbell trained at Otago University medical school and went on to post-graduate work here and in London. She became a specialist in internal medicine and geriatrics, spending 10 years as a geriatrician at Princess Margaret Hospital.
She was drawn to homoeopathy because she had been looking around at alternative things for her own personal development.
"I've always been searching" she says. "I've always been interested in psychosomatic medicine. I had a serious look at homoeopathy and decided that it suited it me down to the ground" She points out that it was a physician, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), who introduced the system of medicine of medicine known as homoeopathy.
It is based on the doctrine of similars – that diseases are curable by those drugs which produce effects on the body similar to the symptoms of the disease – and on the belief that the effect of drugs is increased by giving them in minute doses, obtained by extreme dilution or extremely fine powdering.
Dr. Isbell's waiting room has shelves of homoeopathic remedies on display. They are derived from animal, mineral and vegetable materials, as well as from diseased tissues.
All homoeopathic remedies have been tried out on well people, and the resulting symptoms collated into books. When confronted with a sick person, the homeopath chooses a remedy that would produce the same symptoms in a well person.
"Homoeopathy is a complete framework and system with a coherent philosophy behind it" Dr Isbell says. "But it works on a much more subtle level that conventional medicine. You could say that it is to conventional medicine what nuclear physics is to Newtonian physics. It is working partly on the electro-magnetic field of the body."
Dr Isbell says that a paper in the British medical journal, "The Lancet," in 1986 showed that homeopathic remedies were not just placebos, but did indeed have effects.
She says there are strains running through conventional medicine of "like cures like" – the principle of homeopathy. Most New Zealand homeopaths are lay practitioners, and in Christchurch Dr Isbell is the only qualified doctor practising homoeopathy.
She is the only medical specialist in New Zealand doing so. She says the Health Department is quite happy about it. "They regard me as a doctor who is also offering homoeopathy," she says.
She describes her approach as treating the patient, not the illness – the cause, not the effect. Homeopathy works on the body's "vital force"
"In homoeopathy, you take the case – the symptoms and what affects them, and the type of person the patient is. You look up the symptoms in the encyclopaedia and get a list of remedies that produce those symptoms.
"Then you narrow it down to the one that best matches what's happening to the patient. You give it and wait until the symptoms change or the patient is cured.
"In chronic cases treatment can take up to 18 months. Some say it's one month for every year that you have been unwell. You can regard homeopathic treatment as being like peeling off the layers of an onion and at each stage giving the remedy that best matches the next layer.
"You are aiming to cure the whole person – and to build up strength so that the body can throw off illness."
After practising homoeopathy full-time for one year, Dr Isbell is still surprised at how effective it is. "Most who come to me have already had conventional treatment, or no treatment, and it is very rewarding to watch them get better."
Some of her most spectacular successes have been with chronic illness that has not responded to conventional medicine.
Her practice is growing fast. She now employs a practice nurse, and is looking forward to the day when she will have sufficient staff so that she can take on a teaching role, teaching homeopathy to other doctors. Already a number of doctors have sat in on her consultations and medical students have shown great interest in her work.
The psychosomatic side of medicine has always interested Dr Isbell. That is what constitutes the third side of the practice – healing. "We all know that there is a connection between mind and body, she explains. "I find that I can't always tell if it is the mind or the body that has caused symptoms. There has been a lot of interest this century in psychosomatic illnesses, with people realising that negative thought processes and attitudes can be associated with, or lead to illness."
Similarly, people can have what is called "secondary gain" Although they do not like being ill, they find that there are secondary benefits from their illness, and that is an impediment to recovery.
"There's also been a lot written about sickness roles and health roles," says D. Isbell. "Sometimes it needs just a psychological shift to get back from illness to health. When patients have a chronic illness, or are not getting better, I ask why? What have they got to gain? And sometimes it takes just a bit of work on their illness behaviour, and that can maximise their homeopathy improvement."
Dr Isbell is a firm believer in the power of the positive mind. She says the holistic approach is that a person will get a viral infection, for example, only if he or she is susceptible to it. The homeopath works to improve whatever it is that made the patient susceptible. The same applies to food allergies.
"And if you get arthritis," says Dr. Isbell, "you treat it with a remedy for the whole constitution – the mind state as well as the joints."
Some say that many specific illnesses are associated with specific negative thought patterns. They seen to be generally true, the way I see it. And it is possible to work on these negative thought processes to help people get over it."
She believes that people who are willing to change their lifestyle and way of thinking are much more likely to get better. When a patient comes to her, Dr Isbell starts with a case history and physical examination, and advises the patient's general practitioner by letter. Although she may prescribe homeopathic remedies, she says she does not change the drugs that the G.P. has already prescribed. Her treatment is a combination of conventional medicine, homoeopathy and psychosomatic healing.
"I do my standard doctoring and standard homeopathic work, and I talk to them and point out things that I see, and I prod the person until they notice things themselves.
"Sometimes I more specifically look for a negative thought pattern and I ask the person to deal with that. Sometimes I just ask them to be more positive and forward-thinking and to take on challenges."
She says that most doctors know that simply giving the patient permission to get better can be enough for the patient to get better.
"The mind is very powerful and if we can work with the mind, that's very good. If you feel positive about life, you are likely to get better faster."
Dr Isbell points to the example of the unemployed and the newly retired getting sick if they feel that they have no purpose in life. Because of this well known phenomenon, she says everyone approaching retirement should have some compelling project they can start on straight away. "If a person becomes really positive, lots of situations in life will change for the better – just because of the person's attitude. They won't tolerate things that they did before, and people will react differently to them. But it may be necessary to look at the reasons why people are negative in the first place."
She believes that thought is creative, and that what happens around you is often a manifestation of your own positivity, or lack of it.
The Health Department's view is that it has nothing against anyone practising homeopathy or any of the many other "complementary therapies" so long as they do not contravene the Medicines Act which prohibits making certain claims about the efficacy of drugs or treatments in curing cancer, for example.
The Minister of Health, David Caygill, said in January that it would be possible to reduce the annual $500 million drug bill if more use was made of alternative medicine. He hinted that funding might become available.
Dr. Bob Boyd, the department's primary health care manager, announced on March 17 that the Government was likely to include alternative therapies in future funding allocations. Such therapies would have to meet certain criteria – that the method of care was scientifically sound and trials showed it to be effective; that it was cost-effective; and that if followed, it would delay the onset of degenerative disease and prevent surgery.
"It is a very powerful state of mind, the positive mind," Dr Isbell asserts. She says karate is a good example of this – exponents of that martial art can perform extraordinary physical feats helped by their disciplined mental attitudes. She is starting to learn karate.
Homoeopathy is the only system of alternative medicine so far recognised by the British National Health Service. In the United States most states permit any physician or other practitioner whose licence allows him to prescribe drugs also to practice homoeopathy.
Because homoeopathic remedies are so extremely diluted, they are regarded as harmless. By the same token, homeopathy's detractors say that the remedies are so diluted that the active ingredient is undetectable and cannot do any good either. They say it must work simply by the ‘placebo effect' – through the patient's strong belief that it will work.
Some are concerned that the very innocuousness of such remedies can be harmful.
In a report on a study of homoeopathy published last year, the American publication "Consumer Reports" said: "Unless the laws of chemistry have gone awry, most homeopathic remedies are too diluted to have any physiological effect…(our) medical consultants believe that the system of medicine embracing the use of such remedies involves a potential danger to patients, whether the prescribers are MDs, other licensed practitioners, or outright quacks. Ineffective drugs are dangerous drugs when used to treat serious or life-threatening disease."
A comprehensive review of homeopathic research was published in the "British Homeopathic Journal" in 1984, written by Dr. A.M. Schofield, a professor of biochemistry.
"Despite a great deal of experimental and clinical work, there is only a little scientific evidence to suggest that homoeopathy is effective" he wrote.
"This is because of bad design, execution, reporting, or failure to report promising experimental work, and not necessarily because of the inefficacy of the system which has yet to be properly tested on a large enough scale…
"It is hardly surprising, in view of the quality of much of the experimental work as well as its philosophical framework, and this system of medicine is not accepted by the medical and scientific community at large."
Dr. Schofield added that homoeopathy should not be dismissed simply because its underlying philosophy does not fit accepted scientific premises. He said he felt that "some of the experimental work already done suggests that homoeopathy may be of value," and he recommended further controlled experiments.