Homeopathy’s value under the microscope

Is homeopathy a cure for all ills or just quackery? Picture: Catherine Yang
Is homeopathy a cure for all ills or just quackery? Picture: Catherine Yang
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IS homeopathy legitimate medicine or little more than quackery? Dr Sara Eames and Keith Liddle put both sides of the argument

FOR

The question about continuing to provide any service on the NHS should firstly be: “Does the service meet the needs of its users?” Not only are different services beneficial to different groups of patients, no service meets the needs of the whole population. The NHS needs diversity of approach and provision because human beings are all different. The drive towards uniformity and conformity not only runs contrary to a patient choice agenda, but fails on any rational level to meet the needs of individuals. The people of Lothian who use the homeopathic service want it because it meets their needs.

Homeopathic services are often last ports of call where patients, whose suffering has not been relieved by the drug therapies available, find something which does make a difference for them. Why stop a service which delivers what its users need?

Safety and cost would be the other areas to explore. The homeopathic service has a safety record second to none and the costs of the service are primarily the costs of employing doctors and nurses. Unless NHS Lothian is considering making doctors and nurses redundant, the main costs wouldn’t be reduced by closing the service. The patients treated by the homeopathic service will still require treatment. What plans does NHS Lothian have to treat these particular patients more effectively, more safely and more cheaply than the present service?

The NHS homeopathic service should continue in Lothian because it meets the needs of its users, is supported by them and has an excellent record of producing no harm; and neither the patients nor the staff would disappear from the costs of NHS Lothian were the service to be closed.

• Dr Sara Eames BSc MBChB DGM FFHom* is President of the Faculty of Homeopathy

AGAINST

Homeopathy is a 200- year-old German alternative medicine that has been shown by science not to work. If homeopathy were to work we would have to rewrite much of what we know about physics, chemistry and evidence-based medicine.

For instance, most homeopathic remedies are so highly diluted that in order to contain a single molecule of the substance claimed on their labels, a “C30” pill [the dilution frequently sold by Boots] would need to have a diameter similar to the distance between the sun and the earth. This makes homeopathy very hard to swallow!

More than 200 clinical trials have tested whether homeopathic remedies exhibit clinical effects beyond placebo and collectively these data fail to provide good evidence in favour of homeopathy (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12492603). No homeopathic remedy is better than placebo and there was no condition which responded better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions. You can perhaps see the ridiculousness of the NHS funding homeopathy when you see some of the remedies homeopaths offer.

For example to treat feelings of “oppression, indescribable evil, suspicion, shifty eyes , depression, total isolation, despair, panic and terror” you can take a solution of dilute Berlin Wall. Or one of the world’s most popular homeopathic remedies, Oscillococcinum for flu – made from a bacteria that doesn’t appear to exist!

Alternatively you could try a special type of remedy called a nosode – a homeopathic preparation made from matter from a sick animal or person such as respiratory discharges or diseased tissues.

It doesn’t really matter. All will have the same lack of effect.

NHS Lothian should not fund homeopathy as this runs counter to the ambitions of the NHS Scotland healthcare quality strategy; that mandates that healthcare should be effective and efficient. Homeopathy fails on both these counts.

NHS Lothian could also fall foul of existing laws regarding the licensing of homeopathic remedies. Unlicensed medicines number in the thousands and make up the majority of homeopathic prescriptions. There are only 50 licensed homeopathic medicines. Taxpayer-funded health services should simply not provide treatments that are unlicensed, ineffective and inefficient.

• Keir Liddle is chair of the Edinburgh Skeptics, a society dedicated to promoting science, reason and independent thinking