MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

In my previous post, I reported that the NHS has included homeopathy and herbal medicine on the list of medications that might no longer get reimbursed. The news was reported by most newspapers in the UK. All of the papers correctly quote NHS England giving their reasons for black-listing homeopathy and herbal remedies. Some papers also quote critics of homeopathy providing short ‘sound bites’ and opinions. None of the articles bother to explain in any detail why homeopathy is so ridiculously implausible or how strong the evidence against it has become. In this post, I intend to analyse some of this press coverage by copying those excerpts from the newspaper articles which I find odd or misleading and by adding short comments by myself.

THE DAILY MAIL claimed that homeopathic remedies are treatments using heavily diluted forms of plants, herbs and minerals. This is factually incorrect; think of remedies like X-ray! The Mail also quoted Don Redding, director of policy at National Voices, stating: ‘Whilst some treatments are available to purchase over the counter, that does not mean that everyone can afford them. There will be distinct categories of people who rely on NHS funding for prescriptions of remedies that are otherwise available over the counter. Stopping such prescriptions would break with the principle of an NHS “free at the point of use” and would create a system where access to treatments is based on a person’s ability to pay.’  This argument might apply to medicines that are proven to work; it does, however, not apply to homeopathy.

THE INDEPENDENT cited Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, who said: “If patients are in a position that they can afford to buy over the counter medicines and products, then we would encourage them to do so rather than request a prescription – but imposing blanket policies on GPs, that don’t take into account demographic differences across the country, or that don’t allow for flexibility for a patient’s individual circumstances, risks alienating the most vulnerable in society.” Again, this argument might apply to medicines that are proven to work; it does, however, not apply to homeopathy.

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH also reported the quote from Don Redding, Director of Policy at National Voices which I cited above.

THE DAILY MIRROR quoted The Royal Pharmaceutical Society claiming that such a move raised “serious concerns” for poorer Brits. RPS England Board Chair Sandra Gidley said: “A blanket ban on prescribing of items available to buy will not improve individual quality of life or health outcomes in England. “Those on low incomes will be disproportionately affected.” THE MIRROR also reported what had to say and added that the NHS constitution states that: “Access to NHS services is based on clinical need, not an individual’s ability to pay; NHS services are free of charge, except in limited circumstances sanctioned by parliament.”

THE NEWS & STAR repeated the above quote from The Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

THE GUERNSEY PRESS repeated what RPS England board chair Sandra Gidley said: “We would encourage people with minor health problems to self-care with the support of a pharmacist and to buy medicines where appropriate and affordable to the individual. However, expecting everyone to pay for medicines for common conditions will further increase health inequalities and worsen the health of patients who cannot afford them. A blanket ban on prescribing of items available to buy will not improve individual quality of life or health outcomes in England. Those on low incomes will be disproportionately affected. They should not be denied treatment because of an inability to pay.”

THE TIMES also quoted the RPS and Don Redding misleadingly (see above and below) and concluded their article by citing Cristal Summer, chief executive of the British Homeopathic Association saying: Patients will be prescribed more expensive conventional drugs in place of homeopathy, which defeats the object of the exercise. The NHS also claims it wants to reduce the amount of prescription drugs patients take, then stops offering complementary therapies which can help achieve this. This clearly ignores the fact that ‘the object of the exercise’ for any health service must be to provide effective treatments and avoid placebo therapies like homeopathy. 

THE SUN quoted The Royal Pharmaceutical Society saying such a move raised “serious concerns” for poorer Brits. But it said banning NHS-funded homeopathy was long overdue. THE SUN continued by citing John O’Connell, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance: “The NHS are absolutely right to look at removing homeopathy from their approved prescription list and it’s astonishing that it hasn’t happened sooner.”

METRO pointed out that actress Gwyneth Paltrow, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and world record sprinter Usain Bolt are all known to swear by homeopathic remedies.

Generally speaking, the newspaper coverage was not bad, in my view. The exception evidently is THE TIMES (see above). Several other articles also have a slight whiff of false balance, introducing seemingly rational counter-arguments where none exist. Even though the headlines invariably focus on homeopathy, some of the quotes used by the papers are clearly about other medicines black-listed. This seems particularly obvious with the quotes by the RPS. Many readers might thus be misled into thinking that there is opposition by reputable organisations to the ban on homeopathy. None of the articles that I read quoted a homeopath at the end saying something like  WE KNOW OF MANY PATIENTS WHOSE LIVES WERE SAVED BY HOMEOPATHY. JUST BECAUSE WE DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW IT WORKS DOES NOT MEAN IT DOES NOT WORK. A BAN WOULD PUT PUBLIC HEALTH AT RISK.

Only a few years ago, this type of conclusion to an article on homeopathy would have been inevitable! Could it be that UK journalists (with the exception of those at THE TIMES?) are slowly learning?

 

32 Responses to The NHS ban of homeopathy … and what the UK press made of it. Are UK journalists slowly learning?

  • It has taken far too much work to get here but I do believe there is a cultural shift that sees homeopathy as a joke. This was not true ten years are ago. When mainstream comedians on TV take this assumption as the basis of their jokes then you know we are winning. When serious papers talk of homeopathic economics to talk of delusional and ineffective policies then we are winning.

    • I entirely agree

    • I only request my own choice… now Tesco & Boots no longer are stocking homeopathy as they did before. Have you actually ever tried homeopathy yourself?

      • You have your own choice. No one is preventing you buying the sugar pellets at one a number of high street shops, including Boots (who still sell some) and the likes of Holland and Barrett or any other so-called ‘health’ shop. Or your local homeopath. Or from a number of sellers on the Internet.

      • Requesting ones own choice does not equate to ubiquitous availability…

        • Cults are much more efficatious when everyone takes them seriously. Nothing ruins homeopathic potency worse than being laughed at.

      • Well, part of the explanation for the Tesco and Boots not stocking certain homeopathic remedies is that Nelsons have withdrawn them from the market. The products that have been withdrawn are the ones registered under the National Rules scheme which are permitted indications. I’ve not found any explanation of why this has happened but as there have been no regulatory changes etc, it’s almost certainly a decision Nelsons have made on their own. Those products registered under the Simplified scheme (no indications permitted) are still be produced and available OTC. Think Teetha might be too.

        Nelsons make the Boots branded products. Still available via the Boots website. The Tesco website shows some homeopathic remedies for sale. You’d have to ask your local stores why they’ve discontinued them.

        It’s always pretty much the case that the vast majority of homeopathic medicines are unregistered and can only be obtained legally from the homeopathic pharmacies.

      • Julie, you are free to purchase comparable treatments as voodoo, faith healing, witch craft, or any other alternative fake remedies.

    • On the other hand, still routinely find myself explaining to journalists what homeopathy actually is and the legislation and regulations surrounding it. Do hear the odd sound of a jaw dropping and hitting the floor when explaining how vulnerable UK homeopathy, especially lay homeopathy, is to regulators who are currently mostly benignly indifferent to them. But apparently it’s a difficult story to sell.

      • The reason is that journalists are generally thick and the media lacks integrity (including putting sales above the persuit of fact) . For example, The Times may run an article every blue moon about homeopathy’s absence of scientific basis. But almost every day they’ll run articles in their Times 2 and weekend sections about the latest health and wellness fad that clearly has no scientific basis.

  • But is the next step to criminalise it?
    Otherwise they will just continue to make more people suspicious of conventional healthcare (one of their main unique selling points), sell more people their stuff, donate money to some Uni’s to promote it etc. etc. As it doesn’t really cost much to make, I don’t really think the NHS banning it will have any serious impact on their activities, and bottom line.

  • I wonder exactly what questions some of those quoted above were asked, as the responses are about medicines rather than homeopathy. Or am I being naive in thinking that a GP or a pharmacist should be able to distinguish between the two?

  • You correctly state that “Even though the headlines invariably focus on homeopathy, some of the quotes used by the papers are clearly about other medicines black-listed.”

    However, I overlooked this in the large paragraph at the end and had to read some of the articles AND the original statements by National Voices and others before I independently came to the same conclusion.

    May I suggest a small rewrite to make this point more obvious? There is a good debate to be had here about whether the NHS’s plans for other categories of medicine are appropriate. I would hate to see that debate sidetracked because the press has focused on the homeopathy angle and quoted some sensible concerns out of context.

    • I’ve now spent a bit more time reading through the articles you’ve cited, and think perhaps you’re being a little unfair to the journalists.

      Although the headlines are all “homeopathy banned!”, the contents of the articles do make clear that this is a wide-ranging consultation. Many of the articles do make clear that the comments questioning the impact of the plans are not specifically about homeopathy. I think the Guardian’s reporting is the most unclear in that respect, but most of the others are pretty good.

      • maybe you should also re-read my post?
        it ends: “Could it be that UK journalists (with the exception of those at THE TIMES?) are slowly learning?”

        • You say “Many readers might thus be misled into thinking that there is opposition by reputable organisations to the ban on homeopathy”. I disagree for the reasons I’ve stated and think that’s unfair on the journalists

  • The continued symbiosis of quackery is alive and well in an ongoing US diet scam sold exclusively thru Chiropractors called: Chirothin. It’s a ‘supervised’ (by subluxation-“doctors”) 500-800 calorie diet utilizing ‘drops’ to promote fat-burning…..and of course these vitally important ‘drops’ are homeopathic.
    Hundreds of DC websites sucker fatties with the clarion call: “Chirothin is a powerful homeopathic formula made from a special blend of amino acids, vitamins and cell salt designed to help your body function better, aid in boosting metabolism, suppressing your cravings and detoxificating your body”.

    It’s one thing for unctuous sellers to steal cash from the gullible it’s an entirely other thing when licensed, “doctors”, enrolled in federal insurance programs use that ‘credibility’ and public trust to sell voodoo supplements under the guise of ‘supervision by a doctor’. Oh woe is us

    • & why do you ‘trust’ all pharmaceuticals … I request choice.
      I have benefited from homeopathy & wish to be allowed to continue yet now NHS England have made their decision so have some companies apparently made corporate decisions not to stock for buying off the shelf e.g. Tesco & Boots

      Have you tried homeopathy?

      I presume you’ve used herbs when cooking …? Hmmm aid digestion etc …Open your mind & allow others to benefit in ways they wish to access healthcare.

      • @Julie

        Michael doesn’t say he trusts all pharmaceuticals – you made that up.

        You have the choice to use whatever you like. As I said above, there are many shops selling sugar pills – what they choose to sell is entirely up to them (within the limits of the regulations).

        And cooking herbs have nothing to do with homeopathy! Do you know actually what homeopathy is?

      • Julie, most of us here have a far deeper grasp of homeopathy (and science in general) than the average homeopath.You would be astonished how homeopathy was “discovered”, about the total lack of developments and the really bad drug development. This is not about prohibiting people to chose their poison. That is about *others* having to finance things that do not work – except making somebody feel better. Anyway, so you feel well after visiting your homeopath ? I feel better after having a couple of beers at the pub. Are you going to foot my pub expenses ? I bet not. Likewise I am not wanting to foot other’s expenses on non-working treatments.

  • It’s a big game. When hahnemann who was an allopathic doctor got impatient with so called allopathy, he discovered homoeopathy. Of course, he continued with his discovery n faced opposition from mainstream practitioners as it was a question of survival. Even today the question of survival threatens other practitioners as homoeopathy provides effective cure for many diseased condition.It’s not simply dilution as the myth is. One needs to study in depth to understand homoeopathy as well. We never knew about God’s particle until the experiment was done. Similarly ignorance cannot be basis of a decision like this. Hope genuine people would support homoeopathy.

    • “homoeopathy provides effective cure for many diseased condition”
      HOW ABOUT GIVING US SOME EVIDENCE?

    • Zumba, I have read the reports about the experiment that lead to the “discovery” of homeopathy in Hahnemann’s own words, i.e. German. Essentially he reasoned – Cinchona bark tea causes fever, this explains the antimalarial effect.

      First, as already noted by Hahnemann’s contemporaries, Cinchona bark tea does NOT cause fever. I.o.W. Hahnemann did not even know his own medication.

      Second, the mechanism of Cinchona is very well known and has nothing whatsoever to do with homeopathy.

      In conclusion, homeopathy is the child of an incompetent scientist, paired with a PR hype.

    • Well, unfortunately, one also needs a specialized certificate from Vithoulkas’ e-learning courses.
      https://www.vithoulkas.edu.gr/2-year-course/fees-special-fees
      Of course, if you want to be an expert, this costs… about 5000 Euros!
      The payment form defines the course of the curriculum, which is, roughly, theory and…case studies (what else!).

      Now, for “genuine people” truly interested in homeopathy, let me quote a few things from that website:
      QUOTE:
      “If a student wants to see the second, third, etc. unit of the E-Learning Program earlier and does not want to wait for six months for the second, third or fourth installment, he/she can pay earlier and automatically the corresponding unit of the E-Learning Program will be unlocked.”

      QUOTE:
      “The student shall not have the right to choose only the second, third or fourth unit separately. The cases will be given in audio form, whereas the analysis of the case in video form. The students shall have the right to have access to the cases module, after they will have paid off the total of the subscription.”

      QUOTE:
      “Online Exams Fee
      The fee for the online exams will be 370 euros. ”

      QUOTE:
      “In the event of a student’s registration cancelation at any point, the already paid fees are not refundable.”

      And of course, as if any serious online course would have those, the “incredibility” of the programme is touted through…. yes, you guessed it right… https://www.vithoulkas.edu.gr/testimonials

      It makes a compelling argument, then, that… yes, it’s a big game.

    • Ignorance Zumba? The basis for homeopathy is based on ignorance! Genuine people should support the truth and not fake remedies based on faith and lies.

    • An interesting link, I must say. And quite misleading, unless put into proper perspective. Whoever jumps from here to there (https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/07/vitamins-supplements-effective-at-boosting-call-volume-to-poison-centers/) will focus their attention to a single sentence:

      “Of all the categories of products, homeopathic agents were the largest single cause of calls to poison control centers, accounting for 36 percent of calls.”

      Depending on whether one believes or not in homeopathy, this can mean one of two things:
      1) Homeopathic products do have an effect on the body and that’s why they caused so many poisonings.
      2) The sentence is not clear.

      Thankfully, I have access to the paper, so the misunderstanding is totally clear. The author of the article had no intention of causing it anyway. Long-story-short: Calls to poison control centers DO NOT MEAN cases of poisoning. Parents probably found out that their children had taken homeopathic products and were worried and called. But, what happened in those cases?

      After taking a look INSIDE the paper, I find a couple of things that are very illustrative:

      First of all, the paper documents EXPOSURES (as a total, regardless of outcome) and the categorized outcomes (death, major, moderate or minor/nothing). Death, major and moderate outcomes were considered “serious”.

      1) In the category of Botanicals (semi-random examples), a total of 87699 exposures are recorded, of which, totally, 8872 resulted in serious outcomes (10.1%) –> 15 deaths, 416 major and 8441 moderate outcomes.

      2) In the category of homeopathic agents, a total of 98998 exposures were recorded, of which, totally, 498 resulted in serious outcomes (0.5%) –> 3 deaths, 30 major and 465 moderate outcomes.

      So, 99.5% of the time, nothing happened. A 0.5% percentage of serious outcomes for homeopathic products is flirting with the “coincidental” level. The value is compatible with the fact that homeopathic products do not contain anything. However, some products did go out of line, and maybe used lower dilutions of… Belladonna or something, and, of course, that produced some major outcome, even death, to, in all likelihood, infants at less than 6 years of age.

      Quoting Ars Technica from: https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/01/fda-confirms-toxicity-of-homeopathic-baby-products-maker-refuses-to-recall/

      “The FDA said it had found inconsistent amounts of belladonna in Hyland’s products. Some of the amounts were “far exceeding” what was intended.”

      Using such toxic substances, apart from a far cry to decorate the homeopathy story, is also extremely irresponsible when taking into account the sheer volume of remedies that are being made (thousands to millions). Almost 100,000 exposures were recorded for homeopathic products… If the preparation process has an error rate (all industrial processes ARE prone to errors, machine failure is a reality) of 0.001%, then at 100,000 products, 1 product WILL be defective. Well, it appears they have a slightly higher error rate, and that seems to cost a couple of lives every now and then.

      It is interesting to note that the quality check for such an industry (one manufacturing homeopathic preparations) must be some (chemical?) test, which assures that the products do not contain anything, really, since most of the original ingredients are poisons. In other words, their quality assurance procedure must implement chemical tests that, when performed, success is taken to mean “no active ingredients”. How ironic…

  • Re Journalism (which is the subject of this thread before that got diluted): The Independent quotes the president of the RCGP – but she was commenting on problems with having ‘NHS banned items of low grade value’.
    Homeopathy has no value (save to act as an entertaining placebo).
    But as is inevitable, homeopathy gets conflated with cough drops.

    GPs are concerned the folks who cannot obtain placebos on the NHS will come to them for counselling!

    IMHO, homeopaths should re-train as counsellors and offer their services to the NHS as such.
    Though whether Dr Peter Fisher would command a salary of £120,000 p.a. as a counsellor I doubt.

  • The UK mainstream media has been battering homeopathy for more than a decade. Just the fact that homeopathy makes the headline that with a total spending of less than £100K disregarding the top 3 on the list the NHS spends 1000 times more.

    Also lacking on the list is off course SSRI and statins, which would make top 1 and 2 by a mile.

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