The end of NHS homeopathy?

Amazing news, or almost. Early reports from the Commons science and technology committee indicate that the taxpayer will no longer have to foot the bill for homeopathic treatments on the NHS. This has always been the biggest issue for me – private sales are annoying and misleading, but spending the cash-strapped NHS’s budget on sugar pills to the tune of £4million a year is plain old wrong. The MPs report isn’t in yet, but it is expected to recommend that the NHS no longer fund homeopathy. Hopefully that means the closure of the four publicly-funded homeopathic hospitals in England which treat a mere 54,000 patients.

Make no mistake – this is huge news. If the report’s findings are accepted, this will deal a massive blow to the homeopathic industry in the UK, as a very large part of its credibility is gained from its NHS support. I would not be surprised to see major chemists like Boots, the target of the recent 10:23 protests, follow suit and withdraw homeopathy from sale – this would certainly be likely if the marketing rules are changed. Boots aren’t allowed to sell something labelled ‘chocolate’ if it doesn’t contain any chocolate.  Likewise they shouldn’t be allowed to sell something labelled arnica if there isn’t any arnica in it.

Big thanks to Supersense for tweeting the article linked above in time for me to see it and yell “ding dong the witches are nearly dead!”.

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  1. Another interesting thing in that article is the claim that “medicines should not be allowed to use phrases like “used to treat” in their marketing”. This will require the rewording of advertis for nearly every homeopathic vendor and practitioner. Claiming to treat, not cure, disease is their weasel worded way of avoiding charges of false advertising.

  2. I really hope the government does listen to this report. Times are tough at the moment and wasting money on homeopathy is a nonsense.

    Sadly this government doesn’t have a good history of listening to scientific advisors (the Nutt sacking affair being a case in point), so we might be celebrating prematurely.

  3. @ianf: I don’t know how much choice they’ll have, to be honest. The report will be pretty damning and the press are against homeopathy, particularly in the wake of 10:23, so unless the pressure from Prince Charles is greater than we realise, I don’t think the govt would dare risk the outcry that would result from ignoring this report. But yeah, it ain’t over til the homeopath cries.

  4. @Tracy King: You’re probably right: if it is that damning its going to be very hard for them to recommend funding homeopathy whilst cutting resources in other areas. As good skeptics are we allowed to cross our fingers to try and help this along :-)

  5. The one down side to this, though, might be the potential for it to set a precedent that leads to programs and treatments being cut from the NHS due simply to public controversy rather than a lack of scientifically proven efficacy.

  6. I don’t know, is is perhaps like the chiropractors in the US that have a huge lobby, and have forced most private insurance to pay for their treatments?

    Not working doesn’t always mean people won’t demand it. Plus, doesn’t the royal family practice homeopathy? I have no clue how much influence they have, but if Prince Charles gives the homeopathic community his support and his money, would that make it difficult to end NHS payments?

  7. DandyC, this is happening because it has neither efficacy nor plausibility. Where is the supposed controversy in stopping an ineffective treatment from being funded?

  8. John, you misunderstood me. I didn’t mean stopping funding of an ineffective treatment was a bad or controversial thing (though it certainly is controversial to those who believe it works). I think stopping it is a great thing. I meant that most of parliament and most anyone with any common sense have known for ages that homeopathy is rubbish. The reason it’s got a chance of being stopped NOW might have more to do with recent public outcry than with any scientific evidence as to its uselessness, which has been around for some time. So, although I certainly support the removal of NHS funding from homeopathic practice, I have the small (small!) worry that parliament might become willing to cut funding to any practices which are contested by the public, even if they are scientifically valid or effective. For instance, the NHS recently began supplying clean heroin to long-term addicts who were unresponsive to treatment. Personally, I think this is a good idea, as it keeps the addicts healthy and reduces street demand, but, obviously, lots of people are against it. If those people raise their voices enough, might that program face the axe as well, simply due to unpopularity?

    Finally, here’s a brilliant Mitchell & Webb sketch that I think says it all:

  9. Beating the drum for my primary cause: desperate people with currently incurable disabilities chasing down a panacea to relieve them of everything from blindness to paralysis to foot odor, need to hear major government organizations around the world take a more scientific view of remedies they will endorse through paying for them – it doesn’t matter if the NHS decision was motivated by efficacy or public outcry, it means that there is one class of snake oil sales people pushed further into the margins.

    To wit: A good friend of mine is deaf in one ear, has no eyes in his head ((prosthetic glass eyes instead), a hip replacement from the high school football injury that ended his playing days and, last summer he woke up one day and discovered he was paralyzed from the chest down – he is only 41 years old.

    His doctors said the paralysis was due to some kind of swelling of the spinal cord caused by some very rare set of circumstances. They also told him there was no cure.

    After about eight months of physical therapy (he can get in and out of his wheel chair – I wonder how a blind person can navigate a chair but I suppose I will learn soon) but there has been no improvement in his health.

    Determined to find a solution, he’s been seeing a chiropractor who promises a cure (I suggested he ask for a money back guarantee but no dice) and, at the chiropractor’s advice, he’s been drinking all sorts of homeopathic elixirs with the expected outcome of no improvement.

    This poor bastard will try anything and shrug off any suggestion that it is witchcraft because he is so desperate he is willing to sink a lot of cash (wealthy family) and feeling his hopes rise and crash.

    I don’t want to be the voice of doom and gloom in his life as he really needs something to grab onto or the situation will cause him tremendous animistic depression and possibly suicide (he has discussed such). I told him I would get him as many homeopathic remedies to use in a suicide attempt if he likes.

    I find myself crying when I get off the phone with him. His roller coaster of false hope followed by a crashing sadness when he realizes that another attempt failed.

    He is a really great guy who, at 41 years old, is about half the age of the other patients at the nursing home where he is living. His girlfriend left him (he lost his ex-wife when he lost his vision; he loses his current girlfriend when he loses his mobility) and his group of friends has shrunk to a handful of us burnt out old hackers who love him unconditionally.

    So, any progress against the snake oil industry is probably a move forward for this class of individual.

    Happy Hacking,

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