Yes, it’s that most boring of non-medicine topics, homeopathy, again. At lunchtime on Thursday I got a call from a Times journallst, Fay Schopen, to ask if I could do 500 words on the Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check report on homeopathy. Bang goes another evening. The (im)balance was provided by Sara Eames, President of the Faculty of Homeopathy. As always the media insist on treating the matter as though it were an even argument. It’s not. The version I bashed out was three times the length they wanted, and it was skilfully pruned to length by Fay Schopen for the published version. Here is the original. longer, version, for what it’s worth.
Should the NHS fund homeopathy?
The problem with parliament is that there aren’t enough doctors in the House. Or at least there are too many people who seem not to be able to make a critical distinction between what you’d like to be true and what actually is true (no, I’m not talking about Iraq but about something far less important). Perhaps the prime example is David Tredinnick (Cons. Bosworth) who claimed £700 on expenses for his efforts to link astrology and alternative medicine.
Luckily there are a few MPs who are not convinced that healthcare depends on the phase of the moon, and most of them are on the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee (STC). That committee has been conducting ‘evidence checks’ in an effort to find out the extent to which government policy is based on good evidence. Last Monday they published Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy. The report restores ones faith in reason. It concluded that there is no reason to think homeopathic pills have more effect than a placebo, therefore they should not be paid for by the NHS, and neither was more research justified. The report also criticised the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) for allowing misleading labelling of homeopathic pills, and the Department of Health for failing the take notice of evidence.
Let’s get one thing straight. Homeopathy is very simple indeed. The medicine (in dilutions beyond 12C) contains no medicine. Zero, zilch, nothing. That’s why it is a placebo. Arnica 30C contains not a single molecule of Arnica. It is like selling strawberry jam that has never seen a strawberry. Yet Trading Standards officers can do nothing about this gross mislabelling because loopholes in the law allow advocates of magic medicine to get away with it. It also involves the preposterous idea that the more you dilute a remedy the stronger it gets. If you want to get drunk quickly, put a drop of whisky in the Atlantic Ocean and take a drop. It is nothing sort of surreal that the matter is still being discussed after 200 years.
How did these absurd ideas ever take hold? Around 1800, when homeopathy started, conventional medicine barely existed, and giving nothing was better than being bled and poisoned. Bleeding patients had been standard medicine for hundreds of years in 1800 despite the fact that it killed people. It went on so long because it depended on anecdotes, clinical authority and wishful thinking. These are still the forms of evidence favoured by homeopaths, but real medicine has changed entirely now whereas homeopathy has remained stuck in 1800.
The problem is that homeopaths routinely misrepresent the evidence (if they didn’t they’d be out of business). The report says
”We regret that advocates of homeopathy, including in their submissions to our inquiry, choose to rely on, and promulgate, selective approaches to the treatment of the evidence base”.
The Society of Homeopaths has the nerve to offer you “An overview of positive homeopathy research”. They quite blatantly omit the very much stronger negative evidence. The only word for that is dishonesty.
A favourite with homeopaths is a 2005 study in which 6544 consecutive patients were asked how they felt after homeopathic treatment and 50% said they felt better or much better. That seems a surprisingly small proportion given that most of them would have been treated for minor self-limiting conditions, but we’ll never know because there was no comparison group at all. As evidence, this is utterly worthless,
Two other defences are commonly offered by homeopaths. One is patient choice. The other is that it doesn’t really matter if it’s a placebo if it makes you happy. Choice is fine as long as it’s informed choice. If the homeopath said “these pills contain nothing, but you might feel better after taking them anyway”, that would be fine. But homeopaths never say that. In any case to deceive the patient into thinking they are being offered real medicine when they are not poses deep ethical problems, and the Department of Health has refused to grasp that nettle. You might as well say that Chanel No 5 should be available on the NHS because it makes some people feel better. At the moment we are in the absurd position in which a doctor is not supposed to give placebo knowingly and honestly, but can refer patient to a homeopath for a dishonest placebo. The fact that the homeopath may genuinely believe in the magic is not a sufficient excuse.
If homeopaths limited themselves to minor self-limiting conditions, they wouldn’t do too much harm. But non-medical homeopaths (the vast majority, in the Society of Homeopaths) mostly have no idea of their limitations. They believe they can prevent and treat treat malaria, AIDS, cholera, yellow fever, even cancer.. At this point homeopathy ceases to be a harmless joke but becomes more like culpable homicide.
Recently two homeopaths in Australia were jailed for manslaughter after their own daughter died for want of proper treatment. That is the sort of thing that happens you put your faith in magic medicine,
Homeopathy is on a par with talking to trees. No decent health service should pay for it.
Goldacre has lovely piece in the Guardian.
Homeopathy doesn’t work. But are the claims for other medicines any better?
Drug ads that don’t back up their claims show how dumb doctors can be about evidence and how lax regulation has become
After the Commons science and technology committee report this week, and the stupidity of “we bring you both sides” media coverage, you are bored with homeopathy. So am I, but it gives a simple window into the wider disasters in medicine.
He sounds as bored with homeopathy as I am. He points out that while 100% of claims made by homeopaths’ advertisements are untrue, it is also the case that 30 – 60% of advertisements by Big Pharma can’t be justified by evidence. Once again we see the similarity between the alternative industry and the regular industry (though the former still comes out worse).
Michael Grayer (2 march 2010) , at nontoxic.org.uk has some trenchant comments about what the mainstream media call “balance”. What constitutes balanced coverage worries me too, and gave rise to a complaint to the BBC recently.