“First they came for the homeopaths…”
I’ve lost count of how many self-pitying blogposts by homeopaths I’ve seen begin with those words. The assault on homeopathy is continuing relentlessly and the poor homeopaths don’t know what’s hit them. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels a bit sorry for them.
Only joking. Didn’t you just love watching Tom Dolphin’s turn at the BMA conference recently? For those who missed it, Dolphin — who is deputy chairman of the BMA’s Junior Doctors Committee — announced that, contrary to his headline-grabbing comments back in May, homeopathy isn’t witchcraft after all. He graciously apologised for the offence caused to all the witches who’d objected to the association with homeopathy. “I take it back — it isn’t witchcraft”, said a contrite Dolphin, before going on to explain what homeopathy really is.
It’s nonsense on stilts. It’s pernicious nonsense that feeds a rising wave of irrationality that threatens to overwhelm the hard won gains of the Enlightenment and the scientific method. We risk as a society slipping back into a state of magical thinking when made up science passes for rational discourse and wishing for something to be true passes for proof.
Amen to that and the motion to stop funding homeopathy was carried overwhelmingly. The only surprise — apart from the fact that it’s taken them this long to get this far — being that anyone voted against it. Most of the speeches against the motion were the usual pap: “paucity of evidence does not amount to lack of efficacy,” whined one speaker, ignoring the wealth of evidence of hundreds of clinical trials; “It works — ask the people of anywhere in the world,” bleated another.
But the speeches against weren’t all that bad. Here’s London GP, Paddy Glackin:
I’ve got a group of patients who go to the homeopathic hospital and it’s a great relief to me that they do because, frankly, I’ve got nothing else to offer them. I am completely stuck while they have found a place where they are getting better and if we remove NHS funding I don’t know what I’m going to do with them because they have been extenisvely investigated, extensively managed and the only person they are getting benefit from is the guy who waves some water in their face and is really sweet to them once a month. That keeps them well.
That the homeopathic hospitals should serve as place where doctors can dump untreatable patients is probably the best argument for continuing to fund homeopathy on the NHS. But even if the NHS had infinite resources, I still wouldn’t support it because homeopathy is indeed ‘nonsense on stilts’ and it’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.
I recall the feminist conferences I attended in the 1970s and the fervent discussions we had about how the NHS was failing us. The ideas that were floated at the time contributed to the change in the culture of the doctor-patient relationship we’ve witnessed over the past few decades. These days we demand that our doctors are honest with us, that they listen to us and take us seriously and aren’t paternalistic and condescencing…don’t we?
A few years ago, I attended a talk given by Dr David Reilly, who qualified as a doctor of proper medicine but now works at the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital. Dr Reilly started his talk by claiming there were some 200 positive trials for homeopathy. Thereafter he refused point blank to talk about homeopathy and he disregarded any challenges to the principles of homeopathy from the audience, stating he hadn’t come to discuss it. What he’d come to talk about was the work of the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital and what he took an hour to say could be summed up thus:
Give some people a lovely, tranquil environment, a lot of time, a listening ear and a good bedside manner and they start to feel better.
This works regardless of whether any remedy prescribed has any active ingredients and we know, of course, that homeopathic remedies don’t. The reason I remember Dr Reilly’s talk so well was because it echoed precisely what we’d said at those meetings over thirty years ago and it has absolutely nothing to do with homeopathy. Back then, we all felt the NHS had an ugly paternalistic face and that it treated us something like the pie cases on a Fray Bentos assembly line, filling us with drugs instead of steak and kidney and sending us on our way. What we wanted to happen was something like this:
(1) Train doctors to ask sensitive questions to help patients get everything off their chest and to listen intently while patients prattle on about themselves.
(2) Allow doctors to spend an hour with each patient every visit.
Sorted. No need to refer anyone to a homeoquack so we can stop funding them pronto.
We knew then as we know now that the second requirement wouldn’t be fulfilled any time soon in a publicly-funded health care system, and that this would obviously impact negatively on the first requirement. Thus the new and improved generation of today’s GPs still end up, as Dr Paddy Glackin suggested in his speech, prescribing too many unnecessary meds that don’t work anyway and don’t get rid of chronically unwell patients who have nowhere else to go. That’s what the homeopathic hospitals are for.
Crikey, I could almost talk myself round into supporting them, were it not for the fact that I am haunted by the spectre of my dying mother being ejected from an NHS hospital without them even changing her nappy and with a fucking cannula still stuck in her arm because they were so short of beds and staff. Wanting to get rid of patients because you don’t know what else to do with them isn’t reason enough to lie to them and to spend £4 million out of the public purse annually financing the lie. As I once heard oncologist Prof Michael Baum say to a hysterical homeopathy user, “You can buy your homeopathy if you want but you can’t have it at the expense of other women’s lives”. It may only be a tiny portion of the NHS budget — as they never stop reminding us — but you can buy a lot of Tamoxifen for that.
It might seem callous to suggest that people who want the NHS to fund their homeopathy should buy themselves a tube of Smarties and ring the Samaritans for a nice chat instead. But these are hard times and if the NHS can’t afford proper meds, it needs to stop wasting money on pretend ones. It also needs to have the debate on the placebo effect that Martin Robbins called for in the Guardian recently. Perhaps most importantly, it needs to work out how to harness the benefits of the homeopathic consultation for the good of all patients. Just to reiterate: the benefis have nothing to do with homeopathic remedies. Let’s stop pretending that every health problem has an ingestible solution. That’s what homeopaths do and it’s a load of crap.
No doubt there are some who think that, once the NHS stops funding homeopathy and once Boots and other chemist shops stop presenting the remedies as if they do indeed have ‘therapeutic indications’, then there’d be nothing left for skeptics to do and we’ll shut up and move on to something else. But they’d be wrong. The problem is that homeopaths are liars. Yes, I know a lot of the lies are unintentional because they are delusional but for others there is no excuse. Take, for example, the oft-repeated claim of the “five systematic reviews” that supposedly amount to evidence for homeopathy. This lie is as common as pigeon shit and easily exposed for being exactly that. I caught and exposed the odious American homeoquack Dana Ullman repeating it here and in a previous blog I did the same favour for Jayne Thomas of the Society of Homeopaths, who had the audacity to repeat the falsehood on national TV. Martin did an excellent job in another Guardian column more recently.
Talking of the Society of Homeopaths, apart from telling porkies on national TV and bullying skeptics who tell the truth about them, what exactly is it for? Browsing the Society’s website, I came across its Code of Ethics and Practice and skimmed through it. One line leaped out at me:
“No advertising may be used which expressly or implicitly claims to cure named diseases”.
Quite right too. However, given the dishonesty that is the very essence of the whole cult of homeopathy, I wasn’t particularly surprised to come across this claim on a member’s website (actually the first hit on Google after entering ‘registered with the Society of Homeoapths’):
Basically any condition you would see a GP for can be treated homeopathically.
It doesn’t name any diseases, it simply claims to be able to treat any condition under the sun. WTF??
I am approaching the age my mother was at when she discovered the lump in her breast that turned out to be a malignant tumour necessitating a mastectomy, which allowed her to live for another 30 years. If only she’d seen a homeopath instead of her GP, eh? She might have saved herself a lot of trouble and just died a slow, agonising premature death like Penelope Dingle did.
Yes, people should be free to make their own choices about health as long as they fund their more eccentric choices out of their own pockets rather than everyone else’s. Does that mean that UK homeopaths working outside of the NHS should be able to say whatever nonsense they like on their websites and in their promotional literature? I think not. Thanks to the efforts of skeptics fed up with seeing desperate people being conned by unscrupulous quacks, the chiropractic ‘profession’ now has to mind its ps and qs. It’s high time the homeopaths got a piece of the action.