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

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  1. Nancy Malik says:

    By the end of year 2010, there have been 245 human studies published in 99 peer-reviewed international medical journals (81 integrative, 9 homeopathy and 9 CAM) including 11 meta-analysis, 6 systematic reviews, 1 Cochrane Review and 100 DBRPCT in evidence of homeopathy.

    1. Guy Chapman says:

      By the end of ear 2010 there were several review studies of those 245 human studies. They found no convincing evidence of effect over placebo. They also found that bad quality studies were more likely to be positive. It’s also been shown that positive studies are more likely to be published than negative, because most studies of homeopathy are published in the SCAM-specific press, which is notoriously uncritical.

      Homeopathy has as a founding principle the “law of similars”. This states that like cures like. This rule has no credible evidence, is based on extrapolation from a single data point, and is not a law of nature or even a generally useful guideline for investigation.

      Homeopathy states that dilution increases potency. There is no evidence to support this and it goes against every known dose-response curve.

      Homeopathy is based on the idea that disease is caused by miasms disturbing the vital force. Neither of these exists.

      Homeopathy uses substances diluted beyond the point that they are no longer measurable, and often beyond the point that there is any of the supposed active principle remaining. Attempts by homeopaths to excuse this are implausible and lack any significant support outside the field of homeopathy.

      Every observation of homeopathy is consistent with the null hypothesis. For homeopathy to be right we would have to be fundamentally wrong about the nature of matter, chemistry, human physiology and biochemistry. Large numbers of observations and testable theories from many disparate fields would have to be discarded. Laws and theories supported by independent investigation in numerous different disciplines and using many different techniques, would have to be thrown away.

      Homeopathy has no means of self correction. Nothing is objectively testable, there are no measurements in operation and no scientific instrument can detect the alleged energies, so disputes between homeopaths over things like “imponderable remedies” (such as light fom Venus, mobile phone radiation) or the Korsakovian dilution (whereby the entire preparation is thrown away and the vessel refilled for each dilution, assuming the amount clinging to the vessel walls is about right) cannot be settled other than by schism.

      Homeopathy relies on the books of its elders as the root of authority.

      So, is that a system of medicine, or is it a religion? I would say the latter. But homeopaths could change the scientific consensus rapidly by producing even one case where a single disease has been provably cured by homeopathy.

      No such proof exists to date,

      It’s been more than 200 years, during which time every single new discovery has made homeopathy seem less plausible, not more, and during which time homeopathy has produced precisely nothing in the way of fundamental research validating its doctrines.

      Perhaps that’s why scientists and doctors tend not to take it very seriously.

      1. Alan Henness says:

        I concur with what Guy Chapman says.

        The author said:

        There is much less good evidence to support common medical practice than most people imagine.

        Because there are so many treatments used in the NHS, it’s difficult to put an exact figure to those that have some good evidence behind them, but this figure is generally around 80%. Many altmed supporters would have you believe this is as low as 15%, but this is utterly wrong. However, even if it was just 15%, that is still 15% more evidence than there is for homeopathy.

  2. Gratiela says:

    I think that homeopathy performs an important function, not always fulfilled by what might call ‘scientific medicine’. There is also, in the article above, a recognition of the psychological dimension of the medical practice. I think I am over-educated by any standards, yet I still find myself relieved after I have seen a doctor about a minor but annoying ailment. The structure of healing involves ‘being healed by another’. Homeopathy, for whatever other ills that, by the way, should be determined by observing how the respective scientific studies were conducted, has this important dimension, namely that it encourages the patient to talk about what otherwise gets overlooked. Psychotherapy with a pill? Maybe, but not necessarily only that. I am generally amazed at the ‘violence’ of members of the Humanist Association against homeopathy or religion even as they set their own rituals and functions. The scientific view does not exhaust the world of human feeling and behaviour. Nothing does. But these are older arguments about the darker/hidden side of Enlightenment rationality.

    1. The only function homeopathy has is to identify those who lack the ability to assess evidence in anything like a rational way. Pretending that magic sugar pills can cure disease is unequivocally wrong.

      It might just be defensible if the placebos were being delivered exclusively by those with medical training who will understand when an inert treatment should be discontinued (i.e. when the patient is actually ill), but most homeopaths lack any medical training at all, and they subscribe to a grab-bag of bonkers ideas like germ theory denialism and antivaccinationism.

      The NHS should not fund or endorse quacks.

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