Homeopathy on the NHS

As a result of a remark on our Facebook page we have been challenged by Dr Jhund: Does the Socialist Health Association support Homeopathy?

In the Charter for Health which we published in 1984 we said ” The beginning of alternatives to orthodox medicine are available on the NHS: some GP and Rheumatologists are learning osteopathic manipulations, and Homeopathy has always been available, though sparsely…All of these elements of choice can, and should be expanded.”

Homeopathic medicine cabinet
Homeopathic medicine cabinet

We haven’t discussed homeopathy in the 30 years since that was published.  The House of Commons cross-party Select Committee on Science and Technology said homeopathic medicine should no longer be funded on the NHS and called for a ban on the medicines carrying medical claims on their labels.  The theory behind homeopathy is utter baloney, and the evidence of effectiveness for some other alternative therapies such as acupuncture is  better. But its interesting that this was an initiative from the Science and Technology Committee, not the Health Committee.  Jeremy Hunt (and a few hundred other MPs) welcomed the positive contribution made to the health of the nation by the NHS homeopathic hospitals;

We are of course, and always have been, in favour of evidence based medicine. But medicine is not only a science. There is much less good evidence to support common medical practice than most people imagine.

Complementary medicine can be  helpful to people for whom conventional medicine has nothing to offer. The NHS does pay for some complementary and alternative medicine, mostly for people who are terminally ill, or have severe and enduring mental illness.  Nobody gets homeopathy on the NHS when evidence based treatment is available. We think this is defensible.

What I said which has upset Dr Jhund was my very guarded defend of homeopathy.  “Homeopathy does no harm and it’s cheap. NHS wastes money in much worse ways.”

The arguments against homeopathy boil down to these:

  • There is no evidence that it works any better than placebo
  • It spreads and legitimises a magic and unscientific view of the world
  • Its a waste of money which could be better spent
Those arguments are, in their own terms, entirely correct, and I don’t think any member of the Association would dissent from them.  Its obvious that if homeopathy worked as described by its supporters we would all be cured of all our illnesses because the memory of the remedies would be in the public water supply.  But people in the NHS do not use complementary therapies in the way the critics imagine. This is not a consumer choice for believers when an evidence based treatment is available.   They are used with people whose problems are not amenable to evidence based medicine, and especially where an evidence based approach may be counter-productive.  For these patients something which relieves their anxieties and enables them to cope with their problems a bit better if often all that is hoped for.
Nobody seems to know how much money is spent by the NHS on homeopathy. The Department of Health say “there are currently four homeopathic hospitals in England, and in the region of 25,000 homeopathic items are prescribed each year. Total costs are thought to be in the region of 3-4 million a year.”  The homeopathic hospitals actually provide a variety of complementary medicine, not just homeopathy, so that may be an over-estimate.
All the arguments against homeopathy apply with equal, indeed greater,  force against religion in all its forms. Every hospital has a chaplain. Often a team of chaplains. The cost to the NHS of organised religion is several orders of magnitude greater and the damage done globally by religion is much greater than any done by homeopathy.

Large numbers of patients visit doctors and hospitals daily and  repeatedly with symptoms which are medically unexplained.  They are often convinced that they are seriously ill.  Their doctors generally think that their problems are primarily psychological, but these patients are often sent to hospital for investigations and to visit consultants in order to exclude their anxieties about the  possibility of organic disease.  This process reinforces their anxiety and their belief in their illness which is so mysterious that doctors cannot explain it.  These tests and investigations have their own clinical risks which are quite significant. That seems a good deal more damaging than a bit of water and mumbo-jumbo.

A lot of fuss is made of the cost of the homeopathic hospitals, but it seems to have escaped the notice of their critics that they don’t contain any beds.  Only the memory of beds.


See also:

The Case for Homeopathy Dr Susan McAllion

The Case Against Homeopathy  Dr Alex McMahon