Using blunt language, a British parliamentary panel recommended today that the U.K.’s government-run National Health Service (NHS) stop funding homeopathic remedies.
“[E]xplanations for why homeopathy would work are scientifically implausible,” the panel said.
Homeopathy is nothing more than a placebo treatment, the panel added, and labeling its products as anything other than that lends “a spurious medical legitimacy” to them.
This finding, which was issued by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, is a blow not only to homeopathy’s supporters in Britain (including its highest-profile advocate, Prince Charles), but also to those in the United States, who often point to the British government’s support of homeopathy as an example of what we should be doing here.
A profitable field
According to the BBC, the Brits spend about $6.25 million annually on homeopathic medicine. The NHS has sanctioned homeopathy since 1948, and surveys have found that a large percentage of British doctors recommend homeopathic remedies to their patients. The NHS currently supports four homeopathic “hospitals,” although those facilities have been shrinking and are now mostly outpatient clinics.
But that’s nothing to what we spend on homeopathy here in the U.S. As the Associated Press has reported, almost 4 million Americans (2 percent of adults) spend an estimated $830 million on homeopathic products each year. And although Americans pay out of pocket for their homeopathic treatments, the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) did spend $3.8 million on homeopathic research from 2002 to 2007.
But NCCAM has apparently abandoned its research on homeopathy. “The evidence is not there at this point,” the center’s director, Dr. Josephine Briggs, told the AP.
Nor is that evidence ever likely to appear, for as NCCAM’s own website notes, “a number of [homeopathy’s] key concepts are not consistent with established laws of science (particularly chemistry and physics).”
Now there’s an understatement.
Not based in science
Homeopathic medicines make absolutely no scientific sense — which is why studies showing their benefits can’t be replicated. They’re based on a 200-year-old discredited idea that something that causes symptoms can be used, in a highly diluted form, to treat those symptoms.
In many homeopathic remedies the ingredient is diluted to the point where, as physician, journalist and homeopathic skeptic Ben Goldacre (who testified before the British panel) has noted, “it equates to one molecule of the substance in a sphere of water whose diameter is roughly the distance from the earth to the sun.”
Homeopaths, however, claim that the water, in defiance of all known laws of the universe, retains a “memory” of the ingredient.
A lack of political will?
It’s certainly clear that official medical support for homeopathy in Britain has soured significantly in recent years, particularly after the publication of a string of critical articles in the British journal The Lancet (here’s one) and after a televised BBC investigation that uncovered homeopaths bogusly suggesting that their medicines could help travelers ward off malaria. (Each year, about 2,000 Brits return from trips abroad with malaria.)
Then there was the tragic report from Australia of a baby who died from septicemia after her parents opted to treat her extreme eczema with homeopathic medicines only. (The baby’s father lectured on homeopathy.) The parents were jailed last year for manslaughter.
Still, it’s not yet clear whether the British government has the will during this highly politically charged election year to change its official policy regarding homeopathy.
We’ll see, but I rather doubt it.