Rowena J Ronson runs busy holistic practices in Mill Hill, London, and St. Albans, Hertfordshire. Rowena lectures, writes regularly for journals and has interviewed 34 of the UK’s leading homeopaths to create the book Looking Back Moving Forward, ( 2007.) Her latest research is into our World of Trees – photographically, botanically, medicinally and homeopathically.
Nigel Summerley was one of the first UK journalists to write about all aspects of alternative health. His articles have appeared in The Times, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Independent, the Daily Express, The Guardian and the London Evening Standard. He is also a fully qualified homeopath and a member of the Society of Homeopaths, and he serves on the Society’s Professional Conduct Committee. His other interests include travel, and writing and performing music. His first novel, Like A Flower, has just been published; more details on www.nigelsummerley.com.
We asked Rowena J. Ronson and Nigel Summerley, originators of Double Take, a regular two-people, two-opinions feature in The Homeopath, journal of the UK’s Society of Homeopaths, to dialogue about what it means to be a practising homeopath in the current climate. Do we give up or go on?
NS: When we started our dialogues many years ago, I was at my busiest and most successful peak as a homeopath, but now I have more or less retired from practice. In contrast, you have just gone on getting busier and busier — and remained just as committed.
RJR: My practice does grow from strength to strength as a result of patients being happy with the service I provide and telling their friends. There is no marketing quite like a satisfied patient. What factors led to your early retirement from practice?
NS: There are several strands to the answer. I think I’ve been a good homeopath, treating many hundreds of patients, but not a good businessman. I feel to a degree ground down by the ignorant yet brutally effective campaign by the establishment, the drug companies and the so-called sceptics against alternative medicine. And I need to earn money to live and to support my kids. Other skills that I have pay far better than homeopathy.
RJR: Working as a homeopath in order to provide an income definitely requires specific skills and ones that we need to take on board in order to be financially viable. One has to have an eye on developing our practice as a business. This does not mean seeing patients unnecessarily, but it does mean providing the best service we possibly can, no short cuts, but good, consistent, supportive treatment and care. Explaining from the start that homeopathy is a process and that we can work together over a period of time to create change with their health issues on all levels, is a good way to set a level of expectation for both homeopath and patient and their relationship. Why don’t you feel you have been a good businessman?
NS: primarily, I am not good with money and, if I am honest, I don’t like it! I don’t like asking people for money and I particularly don’t like asking them for money that they can’t afford to pay. I am well aware that there are some people working in alternative and complementary health who charge a lot of money for very little, and that is not how I would want to be. I was happiest as a homeopath when I was working in funded projects where my role was to turn up, see a full day’s worth of patients who got the service free, and get my money direct from the sponsor. It’s like being the homeopathic equivalent of a GP: you do what you were trained to do and what you have an aptitude for, ie, be a homeopath. Also, all one’s energy goes into the case-taking, prescribing and case management (and not the money side of things). At the opposite end of the scale, I invested a lot of money in a Harley Street project (with me as a homeopath, working in an integrated set-up with an allopathic doctor and a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner). We spent a fortune on promotion, saw only a small number of patients, lost all our money and were forced to give up.
RJR: When you say that there are some practitioners who charge a lot of money for very little, what do you mean? I can understand what you mean about it being much easier to work in a funded clinic and not have to deal with money. But I am sure that feeling that way about being self-employed can create a barrier to earning as well. I feel we have to take on board the pros and cons of running a private practice and celebrate those in order to be successful at it. People pay for help in its many forms all day long. I have patients with varying sized pockets come to see me. The important thing for me is, I know I give them value for money and therefore I feel comfortable in charging for my services. After all, it is their choice to come. And for those who can’t afford it, I offer concessions. Do you think those who are are used to being employed find the concept of self-employment harder?
NS: I think some people who are used to being employed find the concept of self-employment quite scary. I definitely don’t fit into that category, as I have been self-employed for the past 15 years. In regard to my slightly bitchy comment about some practitioners charging a lot for very little, I am reluctant to name names, but I am not referring mainly to homeopaths. However, I am aware that some homeopaths prescribe in a knee-jerk style rather than after careful repertorisation and consideration; some just make guesses and stabs in the dark and dress them up as inspiration; some have no idea about case management; and some trade on charisma (and sometimes not much else). I think I’m hamstrung in that I can’t see a way of “celebrating” having to devote time to self-promotion etc, when my aptitude is not for that, but for treating patients. I agree that we shouldn’t have a problem in charging people proper remuneration for our services, but my preference would still be to have no involvement in the money side.
RJR: Yes, I certainly wasn’t wanting you to name names, and of course this is your perception anyway. Homeopaths working in the way you described I am sure would argue a case for how they prescribe and why. My comment on ‘celebrating’ was more to do with the positive aspects of the freedom of running one’s own practice. I feel I reap the rewards of my hard efforts, I receive appreciation from my patients and I have the freedom to work when I want. Is there a way you can practise with having no involvement with the money side of things? I know a homeopath who has all her sessions booked through a call centre or equivalent and they take the money for the sessions via credit card. I know it is not exactly what you mean. But I am guessing you don’t have an issue for charging for the other work you do under the self employed banner?
NS: Yes, this is interesting. I don’t have any problem charging for other self-employed work, which in my case is mainly writing and music. In both these fields, I still do my best to avoid the nitty-gritty of money changing hands (so I obviously have a problem with money transactions generally!), but in both these fields there is an established and comfortable system of work/payment. Plus, and I think this is crucial, the services I am providing have an established value. They are not constantly under attack from sceptics, the media and the Establishment, and do not have to be continually defended and justified. This is the other aspect of homeopathic practice that wore me down, that feeling of having to justify and defend and respond to attacks.
RJR: I agree it is interesting! I am fascinated by your belief system that negates the established value of homeopathic treatment. Regardless of the attacks by the sceptics, I know without any doubt that the service I am providing is of value to my patients, and they know it too. What the sceptics say is irrelevant to me. I don’t let their negativity eat away at my confidence or belief in how I can help others. I don’t defend my work. I just give everything to it and the results speak for themselves.
NS: I don’t have a “belief system”! I’m certainly not negating the value of homeopathy. In fact, surely no one (and no one’s “beliefs”) can have any impact on whether homeopathy works or not. Homeopathy works for the majority of patients; and it is more effective than allopathic medicine in many chronic conditions. These are facts — not “beliefs”. I admire tremendously your positivity and confidence and the work you are doing. But my experience is that many people I know have been, sadly, influenced by the scepticism and negativity about homeopathy, and that, in turn, impacted on me, I think. So yes, I have often felt an imperative to be defensive, and part of the truth is that I grew tired of defending what I was doing. Have you not had similar experiences at times?
RJR: I did a talk recently at the cancer centre where I work. One of the patients came along to the meeting and was certainly more than sceptical, he was actually extremely rude. He clearly came with an agenda to antagonise, and I guess he felt he was justified, after all, he was only repeating what the newspapers say every day, and they must be right! I actually work at the centre voluntarily and gave my time that evening to raise awareness of how I work. His questions really drained my energy and disrupted the evening for all those who attended. I was tired by the end of it and perhaps a little angry, but I didn’t hold on to it, just the same as I don’t hold on to all the emotions that are triggered for me when I work with often terminally ill patients at the centre. I don’t allow negativity to stay in my energy field as I know that if I do, it will be the start of the end of my practice.
NS: That’s a good point, and probably highlights where I’ve taken a “wrong” turning. The antagonistic person who came along to your meeting is towards the extreme end of what I’m talking about, but it’s a good illustration of what I see us being up against. Perhaps because I have encountered a lot of negativity from the likes of doctors, journalists, scientists, academics, politicians, that negativity has seeped into me. On top of that, I suppose on some level I am just appalled by the widespread ignorance about homeopathy (and many other forms of alternative health) and feel: okay, if that’s the road people want to go down, let them get on with it. I continue to use homeopathy myself and will happily advise those close to me about remedies IF they ask me. But that’s it. I gave it my best shot for the best part of 14 years, and I feel I’ve done my bit! How do you stay optimistic about homeopathy in the face of such ignorance and animosity?
RJR: I am optimistic naturally as a person, and I am optimistic as a practitioner because of my relationship with my patients and the results that we achieve together in clinic. I came across a lady this weekend, a paramedic who did not have a positive experience with a homeopath and therefore had a tainted opinion about homeopathy. For her, it simply did not work. I greeted her experience with a curious mind and said that I was happy to answer any questions she might have in order for her to understand homeopathy better. It turned out that the homeopath whom she consulted was a work colleague and I explained how it is important for the relationship to be free from other dynamics as they often get in the way. Interestingly, I could tell before we spoke that there was something going on for her in relation to me, so I wasn’t surprised at all to find that it was homeopathy. However, her attitude changed towards me after our conversation. She was much warmer and more open-minded and I put this down to my openness and lack of defensiveness. She felt my passion and commitment and this turned her around and gave her a new level of respect. Staying positive is easy for me. I am following my purpose and I feel incredibly privileged to be a practitioner of our healing art.
NS: I used to have that optimism too. I looked forward to the latter part of my life being spent as a practising homeopath. Looking back now, I feel that those who trained me never gave an indication of how hard it might be to make a living as a homeopath (without resorting to teaching homeopathy as well as practising it, something not far-removed from pyramid selling). In four years of their lecturing us on homeopathy, medical sciences and materia medica, only an hour or two at most was devoted to setting up a practice. Without a mixture of abundant optimism and full-on business skills, a homeopathic practice seems unlikely to be a way of making a living. Of the people I trained with, I know of perhaps one who is still in practice. Of the other homeopaths I know in practice, most are having a really hard time surviving. How many of the people you trained with are in practice today? And how many homeopaths do you know who make a living solely from their homeopathic practice (and without support from family or partner or private income)?
RJR: I agree that there is not a lot of training in how to stay in practice, be self employed and make a living which is why I now run courses to support practitioners to develop themselves and build skills to build their practices. I am also aware that most of my comrades are no longer practising. And I think that part of the issue for many is that they do not see their practice as their business and therefore they do not give 100% to it. I don’t believe teaching is like pyramid selling. Believe me, I have taught for several colleges and it is hard work for not great financial reward. And I have always been a teacher who raises awareness of the difficulties of running a business, and that to be successful financially we need to be paid respectfully for the service we provide. It goes back to what I said before. I value myself and how I work with my patients. I never encourage patients to see me if I feel they don’t need to. The decision is always theirs. But I am mindful of how much I am earning and how important it is to forward plan. I continuously build my skills and give myself enthusiastically, energetically and wholeheartedly to my practice of homeopathy.
NS: On the pyramid selling point, I simply meant that there is a danger of falling back on teaching people who will then go on to have to teach other people. I have also done some teaching in the past — it’s not brilliantly paid, but it can be a more dependable source of income than practice. Why else are so many of our leading practitioners spending so much time teaching and running colleges and courses? — this is a crucial question, isn’t it? I think you are exceptional in your positivity, optimism and energy, and it does seem that what you give out does affect what comes back to you. Having lost those qualities, even though I used to do a good job, I think I lost the ability to see a future in homeopathy. Yes, it’s a brilliant and natural and benign form of medicine, and it has tremendous benefits to offer. But most people — certainly in the UK — remain ignorant about it and have no interest in being otherwise. Is homeopathy now the medicine of the future or the medicine of the past?
RJR: I know what you meant about teaching, but having interviewed 35 of our best teachers of homeopathy I would like to think they teach because of their passion for the subject. It is just a natural extension of sharing their knowledge and experience. And we can only learn from our collective experience. In fact I feel it is our duty as homeopaths to pass on our experiences in clinic with other homeopaths and the rest of the world. I think the more homeopaths we have graduating through our colleges the better. Each day we all have the potential of raising awareness and creating change. My belief is that much like the electron microscope of the future, which will be able to detect changes in cells as a result of homeopathic remedies, homeopathy will indeed be the medicine of the future.
NS This is what a UK homeopath (now no longer in practice) said to me two days ago (completely unsolicited): “The homeopathy schools have churned out so many homeopaths that it’s practically impossible for anyone to earn a living at it, these days.” I agree that without the great homeopaths of our time, such as Sheilagh Creasy and George Vithoulkas, passing on their knowledge, homeopathy would definitely stagnate and die. But do we need quite so many teachers and quite so many students? Of course there are altruistic motives for teaching homeopathy, but I suspect that many homeopaths have to teach to survive because they cannot make enough money from their practices. And another spectre raises its head here: that there may be some homeopaths who teach because they are happier and more comfortable with the theory and philosophy of homeopathy than they are with seeing patients.
RJR:I don’t believe it is because we have too many homeopaths, that it is hard to make a living. It is easy to blame the colleges, the sceptics, and anyone else for that matter, as it keeps us taking responsibility for our own issues that stop us making a living as a self-employed homeopath. Some of those issues we have covered already, like not wanting to charge our patients etc. I don’t think that there are that many teachers teaching, certainly not like it was, say, ten years ago. And the students have a choice in whether to learn homeopathy or not. No one is making them. I would not be convinced by a homeopath who was teaching while not being in practice themselves. That has never been my experience. Has it been yours? As you said before, teaching doesn’t pay. I used to earn £200 a day from teaching, I could earn that much more easily seeing patients. I am wondering what has made you form the strong, yet negative opinions you have Nigel. I am sorry you feel the way you do. If I felt similarly, I too would feel disillusioned and I know that that would then have an impact on my practice.
NS: It would be interesting to know how many patients some of the “celebrity” homeopaths actually see in a week. But I don’t have any statistics on this. I think what you see as my negativity derives from my desire to be a healer but my inability to be a businessman. If it were possible to be the former without being the latter, I wouldn’t have retired from practice. I wonder if there will ever be a time when homeopaths are employed for, and on the strength of, their healing abilities and experience? Homeopathy has so much to offer, but in a pill-popping, Big Pharma-dominated world can it survive? And if it is to survive, will it have to go underground?
RJR: There are lots of wonderful healers using all kinds of tools including homeopathy who are working for free and are not needing or choosing to make a living from it. I am wondering if that is how you feel about your business skills, if you can find work that pays your bills and see homeopathy as something you want to give back in your free time. It does take an all out dedication to the practice of homeopathy as a way of life combined with a clear focus and desire to make a living from it that sustains us in practice. So yes, it is possible to be the former without being the latter as long as you have another sustainable source of income. I don’t think a time where homeopaths are employed and free from the pressure of earning a living independently is on the horizon. It is quite possible that we might well go underground for a period of time in the not too distant future. The pressure is on and only time will tell. Homeopathy will always survive though. It is born from nature, and nature always adapts, conquers and endures.
NS: I think you’re right about its surviving. I like the idea of going underground and maybe resigning oneself to doing it for free. In part, it feels like a defeat. But in other ways, maybe it is a defiance. However, questions may then come up about codes of ethics and practice, overseeing of standards, and insurance. I suppose, “to live outside the law you must be honest”?
RJR: I never imagined resigning myself to working for free as a homeopath even if we go underground. I guess it would be an act of defiance, much like a flame that just can’t be blown out, however hard you try. Many people visit maverick healers who do not have recognised qualifications or insurance. They work with their own universal code of ethics, their own morals and their own passion. They work knowing that what they are offering their patients is their integrity, their insights and their healing skills from all that they have learned on their journey. I would feel like one of those working at a time that the resistance by the ‘norm’, by the establishment has forced me to follow my truth and my purpose in a more unconventional way, than when we had our current freedom to practice. But that freedom has only been a relatively recent achievement. Homeopathy’s renaissance only occurred in the 1960s. Our Code of Ethics did not come into play until the Society of Homeopaths was established in 1978. Homeopathy at that stage was underground and they were very exciting times for our profession. Thomas Maughan and John Damonte were our forefathers and they charged for their services and I will continue to charge for mine, ethically and wholesomely.
NS: `This makes sense to me. My only concern is that there are some healers who may be guided by their own insights and ethics but who are actually delusional, ignorant and potentially dangerous. That said, perhaps it is possible for responsible practitioners to practise “underground”, making individual contracts, based on informed consent, with individual patients, who pay for the homeopath’s services. This would be in a way a return to the “granny homeopaths”, the traditional home practitioners, many of whom resisted all attempts to regularise and register homeopaths. I would still like to see homeopathy accepted and “respectable”, but perhaps one has to be resigned to the achievement of that still being a long way from here.
RJR: We are much closer to going underground than being accepted, we both know that. Our licences to practice homeopathy don’t really mean much anyway. For now, we are allowed to practise in this country, unlike many others, because it is not illegal to practice without a government licence. All the signs are there for this to change in the future. We need to shift paradigms and move forward. I am actually confident and excited about the future, which is lucky really, because we all know that if we don’t believe in ourselves, our future and our homeopathy, the demons will get the better of us.
NS: This seems an excellent summing up of where we are now with homeopathy. I think you’re right in that we can keep assorted destructive demons at bay through confidence in what we do and in the fact that we offer a viable alternative way of helping people be healthy and happy. A couple of days ago, I prescribed for an old patient of mine; although he knew I was not officially in practice at the moment, he wanted my advice because, after my homeopathic prescriptions seven years ago, he’d seen a chronic condition come to an end and had stayed healthy ever since. This seems to illustrate the great potential and power of homeopathy, and the fact that our patients know it works for them. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many patients we treat, but it does matter that we use our homeopathic skills for the good of others, whenever and however we can.