Homeopathy has slowly been gaining ground, as more and more Swiss seek the benefits of complementary medicine.
There are a number of indications of the widespread interest. Enrolment has steadily risen in courses teaching homeopathic medicine to physicians and pharmacists.
And over the past decade, the number of homeopathic products and points of sale in Switzerland has risen by an estimated 300 per cent, according to Jean Maurice Noyer, owner of the Dr. Noyer pharmacy in Bern, the country's largest pharmacy specialising in homeopathic medicine.
Each month, some 33,500 customers flock to the pharmacy's branches from across the country, an estimated 20 per cent increase from a decade ago.
The products, nature-based treatments for ailments ranging from certain digestive problems to insomnia and flu, have also gained acceptance at traditional pharmacies, which sell "the leaders" among homeopathic products, Noyer told swissinfo.
"We are fighting to persuade people that this is absolutely a thing they want to have," he said.
Noyer added that the Swiss homeopathic industry, which is a fraction of the size of the whole Swiss medical sector, has come under threat from some of the large pharmaceutical companies, which view them as competitors.
But spokesmen for Roche and Novartis, two of Switzerland's largest pharmaceutical firms, say they do not see homeopathic remedies as a threat to their well-established conventional drugs. Novartis said this is because they operate in completely different areas and homeopathic medicine is such a small part of the health market.
At the start of 2002, the law governing the registration of homeopathic medicines changed. Unlike before, remedies now have to be registered with Swiss Medic, a central regulatory authority. In the past this had been done on a cantonal level.
In 1997, some 250,000 Swiss signed a petition protesting against this revision to the law, which they presented to the interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss. Furthermore, the Swiss action committee for traditional medicine submitted another petition in February 2001.
But the government took the decision to centralise the registration of homeopathic remedies, a move which was supported by Interpharma, the official body representing the Swiss pharmaceutical industry.
Homeopathy is a specialised field within complementary medicine, that can be used in addition to conventional medicine or as a treatment in its own right.
However, there are limits to homeopathic treatment, for many physicians and pharmacists. For instance, cancer patients, or those suffering serious illnesses are usually treated with conventional medicine.
There are more than 10,000 complementary medicine therapists in Switzerland covering some 200 different areas of treatment, which, besides, homeopathy, include shiatsu massage, acupuncture, and reflexology.
All of these treatments are grouped together under the banner "complementary or alternative medicine" as opposed to "allopathic" or conventional medicine.
"Conventional remedies, for instance, usually block either inflammation or pain channels," André Thurneysen, a homeopathic doctor from Bern, told swissinfo. "[Whereas] homeopathic remedies try to trigger self healing forces in the organism. "
Principle of similars
Homeopathy is "a system of medicine based on the principle of similars. The name is composed of two Greek words "homoion" meaning similar, and "pathos" meaning suffering."
Its founding father was Doctor Samuel Hahnemann, who was born in Germany in 1755 and died in Paris in 1834.
The Swiss Homeopathic Society is the oldest medical society in Switzerland and has 450 members. Homeopathic treatment predated the science of conventional medicine.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, natural treatments and remedies, were the only form of medicine. This however became eclipsed by the technical and chemical revolution in the mid-nineteenth century, which brought with it a more rational and conventional approach to medicine.
In simple terms homeopathy treats disease by giving a patient a minute dose of natural substances that in a healthy person would produce symptoms of the disease from which the patient suffers.
"Homeopathy favours natural processes," says Thurneysen, adding that complementary medicine encourages the body to heal itself.
"Homeopathic remedies come from anything that occurs in nature," Thurneysren says, "from plants, animals, human infections to minerals and metals."
Consultation procedures are also different in homeopathy compared with allopathic medicine.
Thurneysen says that an initial consultation with a patient can take up to two hours, because homeopaths carefully piece together the patient's past medical history to create what he calls a "jigsaw" of all the patient's facets.
"Once you have this initial picture, you can always rely on it," Thurneysen says, "even two, three, five years later. With the years you can fill in the missing pieces."
In a recent poll carried out by Le Matin newspaper, 56 per cent of people said they were in favour of complementary medicine. A third of these also said they would try complementary medicine before conventional medicine.
Women come out more in favour of complementary treatment than their male counterparts, with 60 per cent saying they had tried plant-based alternative therapies.
According to Thurneysen, the demand for homeopathic doctors is outstripping supply, especially in remote areas. But "by offering training programmes across the country in Lausanne, Geneva, Bern, Zurich and Lucerne," he hopes this can be reversed.
To become a homeopathic doctor, medical students have to follow an "onerous" post-graduate course. This includes 200 hours of teaching, supervised diagnosis and treatment of patients and a final exam, which is run by the Swiss association of homeopathic doctors.
Thurneysen says it is a difficult course and many people drop out. He estimates that only two to three per cent of all medical graduates follow a post-graduate homeopathic course.
Basic health insurance
Since 1999, homeopathy has been included in the basic premiums of most Swiss health insurers. This means that if a GP has also been trained as a homeopath, the insurer will cover any treatment.
However if a patient is referred to a nonmedical homeopath, then the insurer will only cover the costs if the patient has supplementary health insurance, which includes alternative therapies.
With Swica, one of Switzerland's largest insurers, someone over 26 living in a city would pay a supplement of SFR19 per month, or around 10 per cent of the premium.
However the supplement is popular with around 80 per cent of Swica customers opting for the extra coverage.
Homeopathic treatment from a GP will be included in the base cover of health insurers until 2005, when it will come up for review in parliament. For now, it remains a temporary measure.
by Sally Mules and Denise Kalette