Medical error is a lot more dangerous than homeopathy

In 2004, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a shocking study on the frequency of medical errors.

Researchers examined a random sample of charts over a year at one teaching hospital, one large community hospital, and two small community hospitals in each of five provinces, including B.C.

There were no psychiatric or obstetric patients in the study, which  took place over the fiscal year 2000,

The researchers discovered that 7.5 percent of patients experienced at least one “adverse event”, and 36.9 percent of these adverse events were considered “highly preventable”.

Extrapolating the results suggested that adverse events were linked to  between 141,250 and 232,250 admissions to Canadian acute-care hospitals that year.

The study also reported that 9,250 to 23,750 preventable deaths occurred.

You read that correctly: up to 23,750 preventable deaths took place in acute-care hospitals in Canada in a single year, according to the CMAJ study.

In 2007, the CMAJ published another troubling study, this time by University of Toronto medical professor Wendy Levinson and University of Washington associate professor of medicine Thomas Gallagher.

They reported that “adverse events”, including errors, occur frequently in health care.

“Disclosing errors to patients is challenging for both physicians and health care institutions,” they wrote. “Recent studies suggest that harmful medical errors are infrequently disclosed to patients and, despite a malpractice environment that is less onerous than in many countries, Canadian patients are no more likely to be informed about harmful errors than patients elsewhere.”

Last week, the Georgia Straight published an article on homeopathy, which is an alternative approach commonly used in Germany, India, and other countries. We published a disclaimer at the bottom of the piece saying it didn't necessarily reflect the views of the paper.

For that, we’ve been pilloried by some readers and members of a local skeptics' group, even though there is no evidence that homeopathic remedies have any dangerous side effects.

As I read the comments from outraged readers, I asked myself: “Do these people ever raise their voices in protest against the frequency of medical errors, which actually kill people? Do they ask what the B.C. government or the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. are doing about this situation? Or do they just get  in an uproar  about alternative health treatments?”

The medical community loves its peer-reviewed research, which is often underwritten by drug companies. But when Toronto physician  Nancy Olivieri tried to publish some of her research that threatened the industry's profits, she was shut down.

The reality is that some people doubt the effectiveness of flu vaccines because the virus mutates so rapidly.  Some wonder if their vaccine will have any efficacy against the particular  flu virus that they might contract months down the road.

Some of these flu-vaccine skeptics  might be inclined to consider homeopathy as an alternative.  

Judging from the CMAJ-published research, the biggest threat to human health isn't homeopathy; it's that trip to your local hospital.



ezekiel bones

Sep 21, 2009 at 10:11pm

great comment Charlie. People dismiss alternative approaches to health too lightly. For my part, my interactions with standard healthcare have been overwhelmingly negative.

I mostly deal with my health issues using common sense... I would love to have a trusted medical doctor - but it is so hard to find one!

Most of them do not inspire confidence, and the good ones are never taking patients.

Chris MacDonald

Sep 22, 2009 at 3:35am

What an odd, off-topic defence. It's a nonsensical comparison.

The *error* rate in mainstream medicine is versus the *effectiveness* of homeopathy? Please!

The point (still) is that homeopathy does not work. Of course it has no side effects: it contains no active ingredients.

But that doesn't mean it isn't dangerous: if you use it to try to fend off a potentially deadly disease, you (and those around you) have zero protection.

Readers would do well to check out the September 22 Ottawa Citizen, for a sane take on vaccination:

Thomas Kettering

Sep 22, 2009 at 6:32am

These skeptics are the real crazies. They sworm and attack homeopathy and other alterantives. Some are simply Big Pharma reps, and others are just crazy. Ironically, they seek to defend science, and yet, they expose little rational side.

Anxious Medic

Sep 22, 2009 at 7:32am

The chance of making a medical error looms over every health professional's head. Especially when you are applying treatments that have large inherent risks, like surgery or anaesthesia. What this article does not address is the much larger number of Canadians who are helped by or cured by modern medicine - which surely numbers in the millions every year; let alone those whose lives are extended by drugs treating their chronic conditions.

The way the medical and skeptical community raises its voice is by doing SCIENCE. To uncover problems in our therapies and interventions, publishing them so the public and our peers can see the problem, and then trying to abate it. When was the last study done by homoeopaths of this kind? I see you did not cite any study like this.

The reason homoeopathy has no side effects is because it has no effects, outside the placebo effect. The danger in using homoeopathy to prevent the flu is that you are avoiding real treatment - and this will surely do some harm. We have already seen outbreaks of measles (a serious disease that can kill your child) in the US and the UK because of the lessoning of vaccination. The regular flu kills 36000 people in the US every year - and this is less virulent than the H1N1 strain.

We have to lower the death-from-error rate, no doubt, but it surely sits below 1 percent now. Digging up this red herring of medical errors does not lesson the argument against homoeopathic flu medicine - it just muddies the waters some more and confuses the issue. The flu vaccine is safe and effective at preventing flu. Homoeopathic medicine is safe but not effective at preventing the flu. I know which one I will choose.


Sep 22, 2009 at 7:37am

"For that, we’ve been pilloried by some readers and members of a local skeptics' group, even though there is no evidence that homeopathic remedies have any dangerous side effects."

The danger lies in the promotion of homeopathy as an ALTERNATIVE to conventional care. The dangerous side effects lie in people who opt for a selection of potions, to treat their lymphoma and die as a result of not seeking out chemotherapy, one of the few proven techniques for beating this type of cancer.

When these people who opt not to seek medical help eventually die of the disease, the disease is blamed. Nobody faults homeopathy, which is what promised the quick miracle cure that never arrived, and so it's not counted as a loss for homeopathy.

It's a bit like prayer... if you pray and you get what you want, god gets the praise. If you pray and don't get what you want, god doesn't get the blame.

Charlie Smith

Sep 22, 2009 at 8:48am

Some people might think the promotion of COX-2 inhibitors, like Vioxx and Celebrex, posed a bigger threat than the promotion of homeopathy. As far as I know, no medical doctor has been hauled before a medical college in Canada for relying on Big Pharma's marketing messages and prescribing these drugs without paying attention to cautionary messages from the Therapeutics Initiative.

Ed Zwart

Sep 22, 2009 at 9:05am

If you have to ask "What's the harm?" as your baseline for trying to figure out how to solve health problems, haven't you really given up?

Of course real medicine is going to have more screw ups. That's because it's actually DOING something to the patient! ....boldly trying to solve the malady.

But if you insist on asking "what's the harm?" well there's a website for that too:


Sep 22, 2009 at 9:36am

Charlie, keep in mind that homeopathy contains NOTHING; it's a magic potion. Not even homeopaths can tell the difference between a homeopathic tincture and a vial of "non-energized" water. Of course it's going to have fewer problems than chemically active medicines.

You're defending homeopathy, Charlie; would you defend a vendor of lucky pebbles? How do I know that the pebble is lucky and that it's working? Well, I haven't got cancer yet, so it MUST be working so I'll keep it in my pocket.

Everything that the pharmaceuticals put on the market, slanted marketing aside, has been through years of testing by non-involved parties, and has been subject to government oversight and has been assessed very rigorously.

When was the last time that chinese herbal powder from the Naturopath tested for safety? When was the last time that arnica tincture was tested for safery? Oh right, water doesn't need testing for efficacy, because it's WATER.

Ian Bushfield

Sep 22, 2009 at 9:48am

I would argue people who are avoiding disease thinking that provably false homeopathy [] actually does more harm than good []. Many people have died by failing to seek real medical help and instead rely on pseudoscience and magic-woo. Reactions can occur to vaccines, but few of those reactions are nearly as bad as the disease they are attempting to prevent.


Sep 22, 2009 at 10:30am


Why don't you try satiating everyone's appetite for a little unbiased research? Do a little digging and show us some evidence (real, tested and reliable) on your Homeopathic care. Cite it so we can see for ourselves where you're getting your information and check it our for ourselves. Up for a challenge?