Remedies use diluted quantities of mainly herbs and minerals, and are prescribed only after a close study of an individual's background A consultation with a homeopath begins the second you walk into the room. He or she will observe your appearance, body language and speech. The lengthy discussion that follows will probe not only the ailment but also the events in your life at the time at which the symptoms surfaced, or even your childhood. When you leave the clinic an hour later, you may be carrying a little bag of pea-sized pills or a small bottle of liquid. The long and detailed discussion was a necessary part of the consultation, said Arden Wong, a homeopath who practises in Sheung Wan. This is because homeopathic treatments are highly individualised and based on a person's genetic history, personal health history, body type and physical, emotional and mental health. 'For example, the remedies for a woman experiencing painful menstruation after a divorce would differ according to how the woman reacts to the divorce,' Mr Wong said. 'Some may experience depression and loss of self-esteem, while others may experience anger.' It will also differ according to the way the person wants to handle the pain. 'The treatment and even the dosage and frequency at which the medicine is taken will vary from one individual to another.' Homeopathy was developed in the 1700s as a substitute to the extremely conventional medical practices of the time. German physician Samuel Hahnemann researched alternative therapies along the principle of 'like cures like'. He discovered that when administered in miniscule quantities, the substance that caused a disease could be used to induce natural healing. The system has evolved since, and is widely used in the west and in India. When Mr Wong first heard about homeopathy in Hong Kong 15 years ago, the only practising homeopath in the city was Alexander Yuan. Today, a few more practitioners have entered the field, and there are about five known practising homeopaths in the territory. About 70 per cent of homeopathic remedies used herbal or mineral ingredients, Mr Wong said. However, any substance, even inert silica or carbon, can be used as a remedy. All ingredients are used in extremely diluted quantities that are hard to trace without the use of sophisticated technology. The belief is that the essence of the substance is sufficient to induce natural healing. Extreme dilution ensures that the remedy, even if it contains arsenic, is non-toxic and safe. Remedies must also be shaken vigorously before they are administered in the manufacturing process of serial dilutions, a practice that homeopaths call 'succussion', known to make it more potent. Traditionally, homeopathy uses only one remedy at a time for whole mind-body treatment, although some practitioners use more than one. Practitioners who use a single remedy belong to the school of classical homeopathy. Mr Wong's interest in natural medicine grew out of his being afflicted with severe atopic eczema. Having studied a variety of alternative healing systems, including Chinese medicine, ayurveda, reiki and natural nutrition, he joined the Nature Care College in Sydney, Australia, for a three-year full-time classical homeopathy course. He graduated with a diploma with distinction, and won the Excellence for Homeopathy Award/Warren Brauer Memorial Prize for Excellence in Naturopathy. Mr Wong stressed that homeopathy was a serious study, and that there were no shortcuts to mastering the science. 'You can learn to prescribe minor ailments at home with some self-help books, but it takes years of hard work to be a professional homeopath. The homeopathic philosophy and a sound knowledge of homeopathic medical substances [requires serious learning].' Soft skills also play a vital role. 'A good homeopath takes the time to get the full history of the person and needs to have excellent observation and listening skills to understand the symptoms and the patient. The patient should feel comfortable opening up - that is the very basic prerequisite,' he added. Mr Wong treats many patients with skin conditions. He believes he has gained a reputation for treating his own eczema. The treatments which he provides address various ailments ranging from allergies to hypertension, diabetes to learning disabilities such as attention deficit disorder and autism, menstrual problems, insomnia and emotional issues. What about epidemics such as Sars? 'Homeopathy can treat a wide range of ailments. During the Sars epidemic, we won't say we treated people with Sars because the law required anyone suffering from the ailment to enter conventional hospitals. However, we homeopaths did successfully treat quite a few people with upper respiratory tract affections during that period,' he said. 'In fact, during the 1918 global flu epidemics, homeopathic physicians had records of superior results. In a study in Philadelphia of more than 26,000 cases, the mortality of homeopathic treatment of flu was only 1 to 2 per cent, whereas the conventional medical treatment was 30 per cent,' he said. Critics attribute the effectiveness of homeopathy to the placebo effect. 'Such criticisms are often theoretical and not evidence-based,' Mr Wong said. 'In its September 20, 1997 issue, The Lancet published the most significant and comprehensive review of homeopathic research ever. 'The article was an analysis of 89 randomised, placebo-controlled clinical trials. The authors concluded that the clinical effects of homeopathic medicines had a 2.45 times greater effect than placebo. And, we believe satisfied users and cured cases are the biggest testimony.'