LAWYERS are preparing to start a judicial review of a health board’s decision to end funding of homeopathic services amid fears over the impact on those who use the alternative remedies.
Earlier this year, NHS Lothian caused uproar among many patients when it announced that it will no longer pay for homeopathic services – which cost the board around £240,000 a year – following a review and consultation.
The decision is now set to be challenged in the Court of Session after a patient contacted solicitors with her concerns about the way the review was carried out and its long-term impact on those who use the service.
Solicitor Cameron Fyfe, from law firm Drummond Miller, said he is now in the process of securing legal aid for the case, which they were hopeful would be granted so the judicial review process could begin.
The outcome could have a significant effect on other boards who may seek to target their spending on homeopathy as part of efforts to manage tightening budgets.
Last week figures showed that across Scotland around £12 million was spent on homeopathic services in the past five years. NHS Highland has already stopped funding the services.
Homeopathic treatments are based on the theory that “like cures like”. Substances which in larger quantities would cause symptoms are diluted hundreds or thousands of times in the belief that this will help treat the condition.
While many patients say such treatments are the only thing that has been successful in treating their ailments, others in the scientific and medical communities have dismissed them as quackery and nonsense.
The legal challenge to the NHS Lothian decision has been brought by a patient, who wishes to remain anonymous, who started receiving homeopathy in 2002 after suffering anxiety and was prescribed the treatment Agaricus. She later went on to receive another treatment – Bovista, a type of fungi – to help with arthritis.
In legal documents, the patient said: “Now that support has been withdrawn by Lothian health board I may not have access to these treatments at all.”
Both the patient and the advocate appointed to provide legal opinion on the case raised questions about the quality of the consultation and review carried out by NHS Lothian.
The legal team will argue that the board gathered insufficient evidence to allow it to make a proper decision on whether to close the service, meaning it was not compliant with the Public Sector Equality Duty which applies under the Equality Act.
The consultation received 3,720 responses to its questionnaire asking about the future of the homeopathic service. Of those from people living in the Lothian region, 74 per cent were against funding for homeopathy continuing.
Fyfe said: “I have been instructed by a former patient of the homeopathic service to challenge, by way of judicial review, the decision of Lothian health board to close the service. I am in the process of applying for legal aid which should be granted as we have a strong supportive opinion from counsel.
“We also intend to seek interim interdict against Lothian health board from closing the service in the meantime.”
Cristal Sumner, chief executive of the British Homeopathic Association (BHA), said they had always questioned the consultation process which NHS Lothian used to make its decision to withdraw funding.
“There is no conceivable way that the decision of NHS Lothian to stop funding homeopathy is better for patients or the NHS and it is only right its decision is being challenged,” she said.
“From the outset, the BHA has been very vocal in its criticism of NHS Lothian’s consultation, highlighting serious flaws in their processes.
“It was a consultation which failed to appropriately review and weigh actual patient feedback from public meetings and written responses, instead placing too much importance on the results of an online survey which had no security to ensure only those in Lothian replied.
“NHS Lothian have not only failed to understand the impact withdrawing the service will have on the patients who use it, but also the financial impact it will have on NHS Lothian’s other services when these patients, often with chronic health problems, have their very cost-effective treatment of choice removed and must access more expensive drugs and treatments though the NHS.”
But the British Medical Association (BMA) backed the decision to end funding for homeopathy.
Dr Charles Saunders, deputy chairman of BMA Scotland, said: “The BMA believes there should be no further NHS funding for homeopathy. We therefore welcome moves by NHS Lothian to review funding of these services.”
NHS Lothian has pointed out that patients can still access homeopathic remedies on prescription through their GP.
Professor Alex McMahon, director of strategic planning, performance reporting and information at the board, said it had been told about the move to launch a judicial review of the decision on providing the homeopathy services. “This has been referred to the central legal office and it would be inappropriate to comment further.”