James McEnaney: Why NHS Scotland should stop wasting money on homeopathy

CommonSpace columnist James McEnaney says fresh news about NHS Scotland's funding of homeopathy treatment in Scotland should prompt serious questions

OVER the weekend a story was published by The Scotsman which, by all rights, should have provoked a far stronger response.

The revelation, for those who missed it, is this: NHS Scotland is spending nearly PS2m a year on funding for the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital (also known euphemistically as the Centre for Integrative Care).

Homeopathy was invented in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann. It is predicated on the belief that 'like cures like' and that a substance which would cause illness in a healthy person can, if diluted to the point where what you are left with is literally just expensive water, lead to recovery in others.

Unsurprisingly, there is no evidence that combinations of magic water and sugar tablets are an effective form of healthcare.

Homeopaths believe - or at least claim to believe - that water is able to 'remember' the substances that they have dissolved into it while simultaneously forgetting every other material - including, but not limited to, human faeces - it has ever come into contact with.

It is, in no uncertain terms, quackery (although if you feel that you need more information you should visit www.howdoeshomeopathywork.com ).

Unsurprisingly, there is no evidence that combinations of magic water and sugar tablets are an effective form of healthcare: although a small number of individual trials have claimed to offer proof of homeopathy's efficacy, large-scale analysis of all available data has repeatedly found no evidence that homeopathy offers anything other than a placebo effect.

Homeopathy has been described as "witchcraft" by members of the British Medical Association and dismissed by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on the grounds that there is "no evidence that homeopathy is effective as a treatment for any health condition".

Chair of BMA Scotland Dr Peter Bennie has stated that no further NHS funding should be available for a treatment which has "no scientific evidence base to support its use".

Chair of BMA Scotland Dr Peter Bennie has stated that no further NHS funding should be available for a treatment which has "no scientific evidence base to support its use".

Despite all of this, homeopathy remains a genuine - if niche - treatment option in Scotland, one which sees PS2m of public money callously frittered away at a time of severe cutbacks and financial pressure. Such waste is simply unjustifiable on either financial or ethical grounds.

Of course, supporters of pseudo-science are never hard to find. One of the frequently flourished defences of state-funded homeopathy is the idea of 'patient choice' - if someone, a taxpayer, wishes to be treated with homeopathy then surely they should have that right - right?

Well, perhaps, but only if the same rights are to be extended to pretty much any baseless belief that you care to name. Healing crystals? Mercury treatment? Blood-letting? Long-distance reiki? Snake oil? No problem! Just fill in this form and the NHS will get right on that for you! It is demonstrably absurd, yet - in the 21st century - it is also an expensive reality.

Another (equally ludicrous) defence of prescription magic is that the sums being spent don't actually amount to very much in the grand scheme of things; without a hint of irony, supporters of homeopathy will describe its cost as a 'drop in the ocean'.

This is, to be fair, entirely correct: NHS Scotland has an annual budget of approximately PS12bn a year, meaning that spending on homeopathy accounts for around 0.015 per cent of total expenditure.

Despite all of this, homeopathy remains a genuine - if niche - treatment option in Scotland, one which sees PS2m of public money callously frittered away at a time of severe cutbacks and financial pressure.

And it is still scandalous.

Why? Because PS2m could pay the annual wages of 22 GPs, 90 nurses or 125 care workers. It could be used to support the education of young people forced to spend extended periods in hospital. It could help to fund a national campaign to boost the number of regular blood donors in Scotland.

Or it could help people like Katie Milby, a 13 year old whose fight for continued access to the life-enhancing drug Vimizim is about to go before the Scottish Parliament after the Scottish Medicines Consortium decided that the manufacturer "did not provide a sufficiently robust economic analysis" of its benefits.

Katie suffers from a rare degenerative condition called Morquio A which affects just five people in Scotland and has no known cure; she now faces the prospect of being unable to access a drug proven to work but apparently too expensive to be 'cost effective'.

The money spent on homeopathy by NHS Scotland could fund her treatment several times over and offer genuine, life-changing improvements rather than imaginary ones.

The next step should be the end of NHS funding for homeopathy. Such a move would no doubt be controversial, but it is also without doubt the right thing to do.

But homeopathy is not just an expensive fantasy, it is also potentially harmful. When offered through the NHS these 'treatments' are used alongside real medicine, but this arrangement simply legitimises pseudo-science more generally, increasing the likelihood of people rejecting genuine medical care altogether in favour of baseless and exploitative advice from a homeopathist (or, to use the proper scientific term, charlatan).

Thankfully some health boards are already refusing to fund further homeopathic treatment, and Lothian Health Board has just emerged victorious from a court case where its decision to withdraw backing for homeopathy had been challenged.

This is a good start, but the next step should be the end of NHS funding for homeopathy. Such a move would no doubt be controversial, but it is also without doubt the right thing to do.

Picture courtesy of rosefirerising