In the land of pharma, why the Swiss turn to natural meds

We take a closer look at why complementary medicine and homeopathy – despite heavy doses of skepticism from the scientific world – are so ingrained in Switzerland’s approach to wellbeing.


The pharmaceutical industry makes more in exports for Switzerland than the cheese, chocolate and watch industries combined.


Despite being a country that is home to some of the biggest names in pharmaceuticals, nearly 20% of Switzerland’s population turn to natural and homeopathic treatments, according to a study looking at Europe’s use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAMs). (In contrast, only about 1% of those in Nordic countries say they would use homeopathy.)


At least 40 pharmaceutical companies are headquartered in Switzerland, including big names such as Roche, Novartis and Alcon, and are the makers of some of the world’s best-known medicines such as Valium, Ritalin, and Genteal. In 2020, nearly 45% of all Swiss exports were pharmaceuticals.


Regardless, nearly 70% of Swiss voters in 2009 approved a measure to cover five CAMs – homeopathy, holistic medicine, herbal medicine, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine – under the country’s compulsory, basic medical insurance. Swiss doctors were already known for their proclivity to recommend herbal medicines (Ricola, anyone?) as a first line of defense against ailments; with the new rules, they are able to prescribe massages and therapy. Some say the move has been an acknowledgement that stress and other psychological factors contribute to disease; and, that addressing those factors is as beneficial as treating the more apparent, physical symptoms.


Nearly 70% of Swiss voters in 2009 approved a measure to have compulsory health insurance cover alternative medicine and therapies such as massage and acupuncture.

“Homeopathy is a healing method developed by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann at the beginning of the 19th century,” says Dr. Gisela Etter, Specialist in general internal medicine and President of the Swiss Association of Homeopathic Doctors (SVHA).


“Its most important characteristics are the purposeful selection of remedies with the help of the similarity rule, which is based on the individual signs of the disease and the specific personality of a patient. The potentized remedies are selected according to their drug’s characteristic pattern, which are defined by drug tests on healthy people.”


As Dr. Etter explains, the practice is not about pitting conventional medicine against more natural approaches: “I use homeopathy mainly integrated-ly. In certain situations, also a stand-alone treatment is possible,” she says. The qualifications needed to practice these disciplines vary from region to region, though generally speaking, only doctors who have completed supplementary training are qualified to treat patients.




The case for holistic medicine


Thirteen years on from the 2009 vote, and the industry is on the rise. The Swiss market for homeopathy was worth $110 million (CHF 102 million) in 2020 and is forecast to hit an increase $386 million (CHF 358 million) by 2030, according to a market report.


According to Swissmedic, the Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products, CAM accounts for almost 20% of the 8,000 authorized medicines in the country, while any products claiming medicinal benefits must be thoroughly vetted and approved by Swissmedic first.


“Each person is unique, and patients want to be appreciated as individuals,” says Dr. Etter. “That’s why we need a diversity of methods in medicine, as it is established in Switzerland. Furthermore, it is evident that in current times of ecological awareness, biodiversity and sustainability, the demand for a healthcare option such as homeopathy becomes even more attractive.”


Nadine Graves, a Geneva-based Yoga Alliance teacher whose mission is combining yoga, breath work and nutrition to prevent illness and slow down the aging process, has witnessed this rise in popularity of holistic and homeopathic approaches to health firsthand.


“I would say that people are opening up to the idea of homeopathy and naturopathy as we are realizing more and more how important health is and how we want to take control of our health,” Graves said, adding “With these natural approaches, we are focusing on the prevention of illnesses whilst regenerating and healing the body in a holistic way. I have been following a homeopathic doctor for many years and she has healed me in so many ways.”




The jury is still out


Apparently, not everyone is so convinced of the effectiveness of homeopathic medicine as it has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. According to a 2017 study published in Swiss Medical Weekly, only 23% of prescribing doctors said there was enough scientific evidence to prove its effectiveness. For 63% of respondents to the same study, the placebo effect from homeopathic medicines is the most positive outcome.


CAMs might be on the rise, but in Switzerland, there is no doubt that modern medicine still dominates. The two disciples are not, of course, mutually exclusive, and many proponents of holistic medicine would argue that complementary therapies are just that – something that is often best utilized when combined with modern treatments.


“The effects of poly-pharmacy and antibiotic resistance, to name only a few, call for new treatment options. If we combine all our knowledge in medicine, it will be the best medicine,” says Dr. Etter.




Homeopathy in the COVID era


All these factors have combined in spectacular fashion during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though an incredibly complex issue, the Swiss predilection for natural and alternative medicines – in addition to a general distrust for big pharmaceuticals – has led to one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in Western Europe. As with all vaccines, COVID-19 shots are purely voluntary in Switzerland. At the time of writing, 68% of Swiss are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and only 38% have received a booster shot, yet the Swiss have managed to maintain relatively low COVID-19 death rates during the pandemic comparable to or better than neighboring countries and Europe as a whole. 


“Here, as doctors, we offer an important bridge with additional further training in homeopathy by taking the political and social measures, the scientific evidence as well as the fears and concerns of our patients seriously and accompanying them in their informed, but ultimately free vaccination decision,” Dr. Etter says.


Alternative medicines, therefore, seem set to remain as central to the health and wellbeing of Swiss people as thermal spas, skiing and hiking. Not a bad recipe for longevity, many – but not all – would argue.

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