Columnists: The case against homeopathy in Bristol
In a recent report by Buzzfeed on NHS funded homeopathic care in the UK, Bristol and London were revealed to be the last two places patients could receive homeopathy from the National Health Service.
Bristol and London are the two hold-outs in the entire UK, after Wirral Clinical Commisioning Group voted to end its funding this month after a public consultation showed overwhelming that the public agreed that homeopathy shouldn’t be funded by the NHS.
You may remember that in October last year, Bristol’s Homeopathic Hospital ceased offering homeopathic services. This was, in part, thanks to Good Thinking Society’s campaign to end all NHS funded homeopathic treatments in the UK. Previously the annual spend at the Homeopathic Hospital exceeded £250,000, but in 2015 the referral rate from doctors decreased meaning the total spend amounted to £32,324. A big drop, but still over 200 patients were referred by their medical doctors to a pseudoscientific center.
Bristol still funds homeopathic treatment though. Since the Homeopathic Hospital closed, the NHS passed the contract onto Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine. The PCIM describes itself as “an employee-owned social enterprise, combining the best of conventional and complementary healthcare”. Offering a mixture of private and public services, this is the place Bristol residents will go if they are offered/ask for homeopathic treatment.
The problem with homeopathy
There is overwhelming evidence that homeopathy is not as affective as conventional medicine. In 2010, a House of Commons report found that homeopathy works no better than a placebo. It also mentioned that principles on which homeopathy is based on, which is diluting agents until there are no molecules left, is “scientifically implausible”.
In fact, a few years ago an event run by the Merseyside Skeptics called the 10:23 challenge sought to prove how useless homeopathic medicine was by publically attempting to overdose on it. I’m happy to say that all participants felt no adverse effects from the challenge, in the fact they felt no effects at all.
So if we accept that homeopathy is unscientific, useless and provides no benefit to anyone. Why is the NHS still funding it, why is Bristol one of the last cities to realise what the rest of the UK clearly realised a long time ago?
The Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine has a very interesting statement on their website, “We are pleased to be able to continue to deliver the NHS Homeopathic Service, which has been part of Bristol’s healthcare for over half a century.” One of the reasons people give for maintaining homeopathy, not just as an NHS funded exercise, but as also a staple in mainstream western society – is that it’s been around for such a long time, it’s not doing any harm?
If something is earth based, plant based, has the words ‘clean’ or ‘natural’ or ‘chemical-free’ doesn’t necessarily make it better than something that isn’t anything of those things.
When I’m taking antibiotics for an infection in my tooth, I’m not sure I care that much about it being ‘natural’ or ‘chemical-free’ – I mostly want to my face to stop feeling like a demon is trying to rip off my jaw. But I can also see someone would opt for something ‘natural, chemical-free, soil based’ if I was feeling mildly anxious and I was concerned about the side of affects of an anti-anxiety or I couldn’t wait to see an NHS counsellor – it’s totally understandable.
The problem lies in that the treatment may make you feel better, but it’s has been proven time and time again that the placebo affect also works. It’s even a page on the NHS website about complementary medicine and the placebo affect. So instead of having acupuncture, or being given lavender balm to rub on your elbows, a sugar pill would have sufficed to take away whatever was ailing you.
Unless it was something that needed real treatment, then you may have prolonged your own suffering or possibly made something minor, into something major. Do you want to take that risk? By taking something that has no reward? The harm comes when you may have opted for something that sounded nicer, rather than undergo treatment that would have helped you in the long run.
Another issue that comes up when people discuss homeopathy and its benefits is that there are lots of structures that legitimise homeopathy. There are lots of practices people don’t consider homeopathy such as acupuncture and chiropractic treatment – even though these are listed as complementary treatments by the NHS. I recently wrote an entire blog about how Chiropractors are legitimised by society, even though there is no robust evidence to prove its effectiveness over conventional treatment. Even though there are structures holding up homeopathy as a legitimate medical option, there is probably double the amount of damning actual evidence to the contrary:
• There is no legal regulation of homeopathic practitioners in the UK. This means that anyone can practise as a homeopath, even if they have no qualifications or experience.
So why are we still holding out? Why are still propping up ancient institutions that don’t help people with their conditions, or if they do it’s as affective as a sugar pill? When we discovered the world wasn’t flat, did we persist in funding treatment for those who felt anxious about falling off it?
The simple answer is anecdotal evidence. All my reports, studies and quotes from people far smarter won’t change the opinion of someone whose taken holistic medicine or has seen others taken it and improved. No matter how many times you scream, “correlation doesn’t equal causation” or “the placebo effect is real” – if someone truly believes in something, it will take a lot more than facts an evidence to change their opinion.
And that’s fine; you can believe that sticking needles into your chakra will stop your migraines, or that clicking your neck will somehow stop you back pain. The difference is that I don’t want to pay for it, and Bristol shouldn’t have to pay for your indulgence because that’s really what ‘complementary medicine’ means – it means its not really needed.