19 January 2018

Homeopathy is expensive snake oil that doesn’t belong in the NHS


The British Homeopathic Association is taking the NHS to court over its decision to stop funding alternative treatment. The NHS should be applauded for its decision to withdraw funding for homeopathy and the British Homeopathic Association should be widely condemned. Homeopathy simply does not work.

It was welcome news when, in 2017, the NHS announced that it was going to stop funding homeopathy and 17 other items due to their lack of effectiveness. The draft paper revealed that the NHS had spent £92,412 in 2016, and at least £578,000 over the past five years on homeopathic “treatments”. When the plans were announced, Simon Stevens, NHS England’s chief executive, said homeopathy is “at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds”.

Common sense should be enough to show that the idea that a person can be cured of an illness by taking a very diluted form of a harmful substance is arrant nonsense. However, we don’t just have common sense to guide us, we also have scientific research. There are numerous scientific studies published in leading academic journals which show that homeopathy is nothing more than hokum. For example, five large meta-analyses of homoeopathy trials have been conducted. All have had the same result: after excluding methodologically inadequate trials and accounting for publication bias, homoeopathy produced no statistically significant benefit over placebo.

It has been universally condemned by just about everybody who knows anything about medicine. For example, Professor Edzard Ernst of the University of Exeter stated that: “Homeopathy is based on implausible assumptions and the most reliable evidence fails to show that it works beyond a placebo effect. It can cause severe harm when used as an alternative to effective treatments.”

The NHS is funded by taxpayers and therefore has a responsibility to ensure that the money it receives is spent wisely. As such, it should only fund treatments which rigorous, scientific studies have shown to be effective.

If you managed to get an appointment with your local GP and complained of various symptoms and they asked you to extend your arm, you would be rightly concerned if instead of attaching a sphygmomanometer they examined the life-line on your palm. Again, you’d wonder about the doctor’s credentials if he consulted your horoscope, tried to rebalance your chakra, or asked you if you were concerned that an enemy had cast a spell on you. Moreover, you’d probably be heading for the exit sharpish if he said that your condition could be treated by performing a ceremonial dance, eating a baby mouse soaked in rice wine, or through human sacrifice.

Homeopathy is nothing more than quackery peddled by charlatans. These mountebanks are not only interested in swindling the gullible and those with more money than sense, but also want taxpayers to pay them for peddling their ineffective wares.

If somebody wants to receive homeopathic treatment then that is their choice, as long as they do not expect taxpayers to foot the bill. In the same way, if somebody decides to visit a witch doctor to have a curse removed, or a crystal healer and be prescribed a dreamcatcher, that is up to them. It is fine for people to spend their own money on these things, but taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it.

We are reminded on an hourly basis that the NHS is stretched and that there are not enough doctors or nurses to treat us. Moreover, examples of people being denied effective treatments for life-threatening illnesses due to funding issues frequently make the headlines. As such, given that the NHS has limited resources, it should not be funding treatments which will not improve the plight of patients, and should instead focus its attention and money on providing treatments which actually work.

The fact that the quacks from the British Homeopathic Association have the temerity to take the NHS to court in order to force it to spend taxpayers’ money on its fraudulent methods is truly disgraceful. However, it does shine a useful spotlight on NHS funding.

For example, a paper published in 2014 by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges found the NHS was wasting approximately £2 billion each year and risking patients’ health by giving them too many unnecessary X-rays, drugs and treatments. The study found that over £1 billion a year could be saved if doctors took care not to overprescribe drugs and not to medicalise patients who may not have the conditions with which they are diagnosed. One in five patients who have an X-ray for lumbar, spine or knee problems receive one unnecessarily, which costs the NHS £221m a year and exposes patients to radiation. Moreover, the study found that the NHS could save £466 million a year if doctors were less ready to prescribe cocktails of drugs for older people, as the adverse drug reactions some then experience account for six per cent of all hospital admissions and four per cent of all hospital bed-days.

Furthermore, research recently published by the TaxPayers’ Alliance reveals the profligacy of the NHS when it comes to prescriptions. For example, cod liver oil was prescribed, even though an alternative, cheaper version is readily available from health stores. Moreover, the NHS has prescribed gluten-free digestive biscuits and pasta to patients, even though much cheaper alternatives are available in local supermarkets. Perhaps even more bizarrely, patients have received paracetamol, ibuprofen, and indigestion tablets courtesy of the NHS, even though much cheaper versions can be bought in local stores.

However, it must be pointed out that this fondness for providing pointless treatments is also popular with the public. For example, a 2008 survey found that 41 per cent believe the NHS should provide any effective treatment no matter what it costs. A further 31 per cent believe that the NHS should provide any treatment, even if ineffective, no matter the costs. Asked whether there should be limits to what the NHS provides, 55 per cent of respondents disagreed, while 29 per cent strongly disagreed.

The snake-oil salesmen at the British Homeopathy Association should be deeply ashamed of themselves for attempting to use the courts to force taxpayers to fund its fraudulent practices. They deserve our contempt and derision. However, they have at least served one useful purpose in drawing the public’s attention to the funding and procurement practices of the NHS.

Ben Ramanauskas is a Policy Analyst at the TaxPayers' Alliance.