Health: Strange power of the infinitesimal: Celia Hall sits in on the surgery of Andrew Lockie, a homeopath and GP whose prescriptions range from the highly unusual to the plain commonsensical

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Andrew Lockie, homeopath and general practitioner, has his own flu brew. Fifteen years in the making, this 'potentised' mixture contains all the varieties of influenza vaccine approved by the Department of Health each autumn. Each year he adds a drop of the new vaccine to his mother tincture and since the vaccines are already in combination he reckons it works against some 50 strains.

His flu remedy illustrates the great strengths and weaknesses of homeopathic medicine. The earliest vaccines in his flu remedy have now been diluted so often they will not be traceable, yet he and his patients believe in its power. Homeopathy uses infinitesimally small amounts of the agent that causes the illness, or which cause the same symptoms, to trigger the body's resources to fight the condition.

In the end you either believe in it or you don't, but belief has a real part to play in medicine, be it orthodox or alternative, and should not be underestimated. After all, the placebo effect - when patients given dummy pills in drugs trials report improvements - is an established phenomenon.

Homeopathy is enjoying an upsurge of interest. Sales of over-the-counter remedies have doubled in five years and some surveys have shown that more than 75 per cent of doctors are interested in this gentle form of medicine and would like some training in it. In many ways it is the least alternative of all the complementary therapies. The National Health Service provides homeopathic hospitals in London, Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool. Dr Lockie's practice is recognised by major health insurance companies.

He was conventionally trained at medical school in Aberdeen; as a GP in Southampton; in homeopathy at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and since then has maintained his interest in orthodox medicine, working in a local casualty department. But early in his student days he began to dislike the way in which he was taught to dismiss patients' personal information in favour of the 'mechanical' facts.

'In conventional medicine the symptoms become the disease: therefore if there are no symptoms there is no disease. What I began to understand was that symptoms are not diseases but the body's reaction to the diseases. If we augment the symptoms with a remedy we help the body to do what it is trying to do already,' he explains.

Homeopathic remedies are 'potentised'. As this involves diluting it seems to run counter to logic. They are made by diluting the active ingredient, one part to a 100, time after time, and succussing, or agitating, the mixture after each dilution. The more it is succussed the more efficacious it becomes. Often this process goes beyond the point at which the molecules of the ingredient can be measured. 9

The scientific theory is that the violent mixing imprints a molecular 'memory' of the original ingredient on the mixture. There is some evidence from studies with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging that electrochemical changes may indeed take place in these homeopathic solutions.

Dr Lockie says that NMR research in America from the mid-Sixties, and more recently from Germany, suggests that the succussing in some way alters the molecular structure of the water in which the active ingredient was dissolved. 'But we are still a long way from discovering what really happens,' he said.

A few hours in Dr Lockie's surgery, a private practice, revealed consultations that were as much psychological as physical. The homeopath treats the whole person and not simply the symptom; study of his latest book, The Women's Guide to Homeopathy, written with Nicola Geddes, shows that the remedies address both physical and emotional complaints. Dr Lockie's patients benefit from his knowledge of both forms of medicine and from his common sense.

A five-year-old boy had spotty legs. A week before his ankles had swollen and then his wrists. His mother had not been satisfied with the family doctor's explanation of an abnormal reaction to a virus and took him to Dr Lockie.

The consultation lasted 25 minutes. 'It started with his right ankle and he was very frightened by it. He wanted to know if he was dying,' his mother said. This revelation of her child's worried state led to questioning from which it emerged that the father had been away, that the little boy was weepy and unusually clinging to his mother. He also had an upset stomach.

Dr Lockie decided it probably was an allergic reaction but to what would probably never be known. He prescribed pulsatilla, derived from the passion flower, Pulsatilla nigricans, a favoured remedy, in this case indicated for weepiness, fear of death, longing for affection - and upset bowels.

Earlier he saw a new patient, a married woman in her forties, the mother of three young children. She had already filled in an extensive questionnaire and this first consultation was to take an hour. She was anxious and unhappy, subject to panic attacks and headaches, which is what she wanted treated, as well as a return to the health and happiness she had enjoyed before the birth of her last child. Her life history exposed a really rotten childhood, trailing around the world with a single parent.

His questions were detailed. Her answers revelatory. Her own attempts to improve her health had included some adroit changes to her diet - cutting out chocolate and sugar, spicy foods, salt, tea and coffee. Dr Lockie questioned her carefully about the panic attacks. His diagnosis was prosaic - hypoglycaemia - low blood sugar, causing her attacks. His solution was a vitamin supplement and a helpful diet sheet. Afterwards he said he felt that an orthodox GP would have missed this diagnosis and treated the patient's anxiety. He was probably right.

A middle-aged woman, who had come for the flu remedy, said what he had given for her cold sores had not really worked. But she had not had a virus all last winter and wanted more of the flu pills.

This is a kind way to deliver medicine and his consultations felt more informal than the the usual surgery set-up. His Women's Guide is also fun. It tells you how to be your own homeopath, by analysing your own physical and emotional symptoms together, and by cross-referencing to find the appropriate remedy. But why Lactose Canis (dog's milk) is a remedy for looking anxious, is still a mystery to me. It might make puppies happy, but it takes an elastic imagination to see how to apply this to humans.

For a generation brought up on potent pharmaceutical drugs, the nagging question remains: does homeopathy really work? Most people will recover from their minor ailments anyway. But what about the big diseases. What about cancer?

As Dr Lockie uses orthodox medicine too, he refers patients for surgery and radiotherapy when it is necessary. 'I have a series of options but I try to use medicine that is safe, simple, cheap an effective.

'What form of medicine can cure all things at all times?' he asks. As questions go, it is a good reply.

'The Women's Guide to Homeopathy' by Dr Andrew Lockie and Dr Nicola Geddes (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 12.99). Video: 'Homeopathy - the Realistic Alternative', pounds 12 by mail from The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital NHS Trust, Great Ormond Street, WC1, or pounds 9.99 from book/video shops.

(Photograph omitted)

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