Listen To Me, Doc

At first glance, Dr. Lucilla Ricottini's office seems just about normal for a pediatrician in Rome. The colors are muted, the lights are fluorescent and kiddie toys litter the waiting room. But it doesn't take long to realize that Ricottini isn't your typical doctor. She can spend hours consulting with a single patient. And she chooses carefully from an arsenal of ancient remedies, including beetle secretions and the fresh venom of a bushmaster snake. Is it voodoo medicine? "It's really about listening to the patient," says Ricottini. "Official medicine is still vital, but sometimes it makes a patient feel like a machine and that the doctor is just changing a part."

Ricottini is one of a growing band of physicians embracing homeopathy, a holistic approach that takes into account not just a patient's symptoms but myriad other life factors as well. Do you feel optimistic? Do you socialize, or sit in your apartment every night? How a patient answers determines what a homeopathic doctor will prescribe. One treatment may suit a child, and quite another would work for an adult under the stress of work and family life. Patients seem to welcome all the attention from their doctor and the feeling of involvement their sessions bring. Long popular in parts of Asia, in recent years homeopathy has become Europe's fastest-growing form of alternative medicine. Last year sales of homeopathic cures topped 3 billion euros. Whether it works, though, remains a matter of some controversy.

Two centuries ago German physician Samuel Hahnemann founded homeopathy on his "law of infinitesimals": the more diluted a substance, the greater its effect on the human body. Treatments usually involve some substance derived from the illness itself--for food poisoning, it might be arsenic--but greatly diluted. According to Hahnemann, the active ingredient leaves behind a "spiritlike essence" that speaks to the body's "vital force."

Skeptics say that homeopathy is nothing more than the placebo effect. Proponents cite studies in reputable medical journals that "proved that homeopathy has an action above that of mere placebo," says Stephen Gordon, general secretary of Europe's Council for Classical Homeopathy. That's nonsense, says Dr. Stephen Barrett, head of the American group Quackwatch. The studies are flawed, he says. In a recent report called "Homeopathy: The Ultimate Fake," Barrett points out that Oscillococcinum, a treatment of freshly killed duck's liver and heart and France's No. 1 over-the-counter cold remedy, is so greatly diluted that not even one molecule remains. The argument won't be resolved soon. Since homeopathic treatments vary widely, rigorous clinical trials have never been done. That's hasn't stopped private insurers in Europe from covering treatments or the World Health Organization from recommending them when pharmaceuticals are expensive and hard to get. And maybe doctors will better appreciate the need to listen.