Homeopathy and the NHS…

So the NHS may finally be clearing its shelves of homeopathic practice and remedies.  To address the current funding crisis, the NHS has announced that a number of remedies which are either ineffective, frankly dangerous or both will no longer be available.  Homeopathy is one of them and rightly so.   No doubt some, perhaps Prince Charles a strong advocate for homeopathy, will protest that this move will adversely affect the health of the nation but they will be in the minority and frankly, if they really believe this, then it is they who need therapy.

Some year back I was forced to seriously consider the formation of a new professional body “Pharmacists for Science” with a single aim of promoting science among colleagues.  Like “Vicars for God”, “Police for the Law” and “Teachers for Education” there should be no need for such a professional grouping but given the passion for the promotion of rubbish remedies such as homeopathy I really feared that pharmacy was in serious danger of losing science as the bedrock for the profession.

At that time a London based pharmacy was supplying homoeopathic “Swine Flu Formula” but it was the complete failure of government agencies to regulate effectively in this case that was of greatest concern.  This was frankly a dangerous practice but regulators struggled to close it down.     Other examples included homoeopathic remedies for mental block; the “Berlin Wall” in C30 dilutions.  The logic seemed to be that the blockade of Berlin was overcome by the fall of the wall therefore a dilution of the wall (fallen down bits) might help to overcome mental and emotional blockades.

My discovery of these unsavoury episodes was quickly followed by the appearance of Paul Burnett, then the Superintendent of Boots the Chemists now CEO of the Pharmacy Professional body RPS in GB, in front of a parliamentary committee.  MPs were seeking an answer to the question why our cash strapped NHS was paying for homoeopathy. Paul stood firmly by homoeopathic remedies and his customers’ right to choose.  Customer choice it seems is paramount to Boots policies and principles. I would disagree; rather “informed patient choice” should be king and if pharmacists, pharmacy staff and shelf barkers fail to clearly inform customers in any pharmacy that homoeopathic remedies are no more effective than placebo then we act, in my view, unethically.

Indeed Boots, perhaps alarmed by a number of protests outside stores, got the message and their websites now reflects a better, more scientific approach to homeopathy stating that the practice is poorly regulated and there is no evidence of efficacy beyond a placebo effect.   They also seem to have modified their range and offering of homeopathic remedies.

Homeopathic remedies are still sold in pharmacies only because they make a profit.  Homeopathy is just nonsense and it goes like this.  The first principle of homeopathy is what they call the “law of similars”.   Homeopaths look for a chemical that produces a similar symptom to the disease they aim to treat. For example, caffeine keeps you awake, so homeopaths use this to treat insomnia.  Similarly Hay Fever causes runny eyes and so do onions – so some homeopaths will treat hay fever with a preparation of onions.  Turning a chemical such as onion juice into a homeopathic preparation involves a process of “dilution” and “succussion”.  To create the centesimal or “C” remedies the homeopath takes one drop of the chemical and mixes it with 99 drops of water (dilution).

A 6C remedy will contain about 0.0000000001% “active” ingredient – which works out at about 1.7 billion molecules of active ingredient.

By the time you get to 10C, there are only 17 molecules of active ingredient left. And at 11C, you only have about a one chance in six of finding a single molecule in the remedy. By the time you get to 30C, you have more chance of winning the National Lottery jackpot five weeks in a row than you do of finding a single molecule of active ingredient.

Cochrane Library articles – the gold standard of medical science – contain reviews of homeopathy treatment of dementia, asthma and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and they confirm the placebo effect.   Some might argue that placebo – or suggestion – is effective therapy so why not use it but we must question the ethics of this.

I did not form the professional body “Pharmacists for Science” as I found that all pharmacists when asked appreciate that homeopathy is unscientific and merely placebo.  I sincerely hope that following the current consultation the NHS will finally rid itself for good of this expensive hocus pocus.

I am a pharmacist in Belfast.

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