A new controversy is ripe, what with the head of the UK National Health Service (NHS), Simon Stevens, publicly expressing his “serious concerns” about the “fundamentally flawed” practice of homeopathy. This occurred in a letter written by him on October 22, 2019, in conjunction with Stephen Powis, national medical director of the NHS, to the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) in connection with the accreditation of the Society of Homeopaths.
The two public health experts were of the opinion that official accreditation of this system of medicine was responsible for giving the public a false impression that homeopathy was a form of treatment with scientific and clinical backing. They were responding to a request from the PSA in view of the possibility of granting reaccreditation to the Society.
Homeopathy remedies. Image Credit: Lucie Nestrasilova / Shutterstock
The basis of homeopathy
Homeopathy is a system of treatment pioneered by Samuel Hahnemann, of Germany, based on the idea that a toxin which causes an illness can be used in a greatly diluted form to treat it. The greater the dilution, the more powerful the effect is, according to homeopaths.
Thus homeopaths may use pollen to treat allergies, in a high dilution. This is achieved by making a 1:100 solution of the toxin with water or alcohol. The procedure is then repeated 6 times using one part of the newly created diluted mixture each time. The final formulation is called a 6c formulation. If repeated 30 times, it is a 30c formulation. The quantity of the toxin in the 6c formulation is an incredibly minute 1 part per trillion – which is quite incapable of affecting body systems in any meaningful way according to modern medical knowledge.
Tiny amounts of this final 6c or 30c mixture is what is mixed into a lactose (milk sugar) tablet to form the familiar homeopathy pills. They use such formulations to treat conditions like asthma, hay fever, depression, ear infections, anxiety, arthritis and allergy. The NHS director asks where the evidence is of the efficacy of such treatment – and no answer is forthcoming, so far.
Procedural agreement is not proof of efficacy
The health executives agreed that procedurally, the homeopathic society could fulfil some of the requirements for PSA reaccreditation, but, they said, the basis of homeopathic practice is unsound. Homeopathic practice in the UK requires neither qualifications nor experience. They also say that homeopathic treatments have not been validated by any scientific trials, nor are they the treatment of choice in any medical condition.
Instead, they said, it was a poor replacement for available medical therapies that have been tried and tested and are delivered by well-qualified medically trained professionals. Stevens said, “Anything that gives homeopathy a veneer of credibility risks chancers being able to con more people into parting with their hard-earned cash in return for bogus treatments which at best do nothing, and at worst can be potentially dangerous.”
Scarce resources being wasted on unethical ‘human trials’ of homeopathic drugs
The health executives do not support any recommendation for this healthcare system, and NHS England has already issued its recommendation that GPs cease to give homeopathic treatment by 2017. At the time, Stevens described it as “at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds.” In 2018, the NHS spent about £55,000 on just over 10,000 homeopathic prescriptions, according to government figures. However, this is a positive sign, since the corresponding number in 1996 was 170,000 prescriptions.
The letter also points out that NHS England has brought out guidelines, which are based on the most recent clinical evidence, to make sure that “items like homeopathy that could be unsafe, ineffective” are never prescribed to patients, or when these pass over more cost-effective options.
Results of independent evaluation
The absolute lack of proof of any but placebo effect for homeopathic remedies was established by a Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee (2010).
In addition to the round condemnation by the Science and Technology Committee, the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) inspection of the dilution process revealed a shocking fact – in one of every six vials of homeopathic medicine prepared, the vigorous shaking or succession process that activates the “vibrational memory” of water caused the single drop of actual active ingredient to fall outside the vial altogether – making it nothing but a cute sugar ball container.
The Good Thinking Society has launched its own campaign to make people truly aware of what homeopathy is, rather than what it only claims to do. One bestseller, of course, is the claim of increase in efficacy with dilution – a process which is difficult to believe. Independent research has repeatedly concluded that these pills are no better than placebo.
Secondly, they often argue that their ‘sugar pills’ certainly do no harm – except, of course, the occasional death due to lack of adequate treatment of a completely treatable condition. And what about homeopathic drugs that allegedly provide immunity to a host of infectious diseases – sidestepping proven vaccines that have relieved hundreds of millions of children who might have died of killers like polio and diphtheria? Homeopaths also claim to treat malaria without antimalarial drugs, to treat AIDS (in patients who are on regular antiretroviral therapy), and to be able to prevent leptospirosis, or rat-fever, a disease with a very high death rate.
And just to prove how absurd their basis is, we just need to ask: who ever died of an overdose of “powerful” homeo pills – except, of course, a diabetic?
The Society of Homeopaths is the single largest group of registered homeopaths in the UK. It enjoys the support of the Prince of Wales who is known to be a fan of complementary and homeopathic medicine. This penchant has not been taken kindly by modern medical practitioners who share Stevens’ opinion as to the worthlessness and potential damage of homeopathy.
Neither the Society nor the PSA cared to comment on the letter in view of the pending reaccreditation decision. However, a judicial review has been ordered for its decision to grant reaccreditation, in response to a challenge by the Good Thinking Society.
Homeopathy should have professional accreditation revoked, NHS leaders urge BMJ 2019; 367 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l6248 (Published 29 October 2019) https://www.bmj.com/content/367/bmj.l6248.full