From the Daily Telegraph, 30 June 2010 (story by Ed West).
Homeopathy is a bitter pill for the taxpayer
There's no proof that it works, so why is the NHS spending £4 million a year on a placebo, asks Ed West.
It was a small victory for science, and an even smaller one for taxpayers. But opponents of public-sector mission creep will be cheered by this week's news from the British Medical Association conference in Brighton. It has recommended that the NHS should no longer fund homeopathy, on the grounds that there is no evidence that it works, and that it runs counter to all principles of evidence-based medicine.
The most outspoken supporter of the motion, Dr Tom Dolphin, had earlier compared homeopathy to witchcraft, but then apologised to witches on the grounds that this was unfair. Homeopathy, he said, was “pernicious nonsense that feeds into a rising wave of irrationality which threatens to overwhelm the hard-won gains of the Enlightenment and the scientific method”.
The theory behind homeopathy is that patients can be healed via the administration of the substances that caused their symptoms, diluted to the point where the remedies can contain barely a molecule of the original product. The idea is that treatment retains its power because water can “remember” the substance introduced to it.
Those who oppose public funding of homeopathy – ranging from MPs to the BMA – argue that this is nonsense. In January, a group opposed to “pseudoscience” called Ten23 staged a mass overdose outside Boots stores around the country in protest at their sale of the “medicine”. There were no fatalities. Yet such criticism has done little to dent the products' popularity. In my local high street in north London, Boots is just one of three shops selling homeopathic products. Few of the fashionable young mothers would be seen dead in a church, but they are happy to shop in the organic superfood store, which runs a homeopathy lab selling thousands of water capsules.
The standard objection from the rationalists is that it is one thing for believers to buy such placebo products, but quite another for the taxpayer to fund them. The BMA estimates that the NHS spends about £4 million a year treating 54,000 patients in four homeopathic hospitals, although the Department of Health says the medicines themselves cost only £152,000. In response, and without irony, a spokesman for the Society of Homeopaths complained that this was a mere 0.001 per cent of the NHS drugs budget – inviting the suggestion that diluting it by a few zeroes ought only to increase its effectiveness. Critics also point out that one reason the medicine is so cheap is because it largely comes out of a tap.
The cost, however, has never really been the issue; rather, as Dr Dolphin put it, this is about the Enlightenment. Ten23, and other sceptics, see homeopathy as part of a wider problem of irrationality and superstition, bundling it in with religion as a pernicious influence.
This argument tends to ignore the distinction that unlike homeopathy, organised religions do not dress their beliefs up in the language of science, nor make empirical claims about the effectiveness of prayer. The NHS has chaplains, yes, but they are there to comfort, not cure.
And, rather than being a relic of the medieval era, homeopathy is, like religious fundamentalism, a modern reaction to the Enlightenment, and seems to flourish in anxious, doubtful societies. Created in 1796, it was dead and buried by 1970, but has enjoyed a spectacular revival just as religion has disappeared from public life. To make an unscientific – but still accurate – assertion, God's exile has left a spiritual vacancy effortlessly filled by an unregulated worldwide web of mumbo-jumbo, one which secular authorities are less effective at policing.
The best thing that can be said about homeopathy is that, like religion, it provides comfort to the distressed, and that its ministers show tender, loving care to the sick. TLC is no bad thing, so long as it is not exploited, nor taken as a substitute for real medicine. But as the BMA has pointed out, it is certainly not the state's job to provide it.