Doctors call for NHS to stop funding homeopathy

Homeopathic pills Homeopathic remedies often contain few or no active ingredients

The NHS should stop funding homeopathy and it should no longer be marketed as a medicine in pharmacies, doctors say.

Medics voted on the issue at the British Medical Association's annual conference in Brighton.

They dismissed the highly-diluted remedies as "nonsense" and potentially harmful to patients as it can lead them to shunning conventional medicines.

The Department of Health homeopathy said treatment was under review.

Homeopathy is a 200-year-old system of treatment that uses highly diluted substances.

In some cases none of the original product is left. It is given orally in the belief that it will stimulate the body's self-healing mechanism.

The NHS is thought to spend about £4m a year on the treatment, helping to fund four dedicated homeopathic hospitals and numerous prescriptions.

Dr Mary McCarthy, a GP from Shropshire, said there was no evidence from hundreds of trials that homeopathy worked beyond the placebo effect - in which a patient gets better but only because they believe the treatment will work and their symptoms clear up because of the psychological boost.

She added: "It can do harm by diverting patients from conventional medical treatments."

Watery science

She was supported in the debate by a number of other doctors, despite dozens of supporters of the treatment gathering outside the conference centre urging them not to.

Dr Tom Dolphin, a member of the BMA's junior doctors committee, dismissed it as "nonsense on stilts".

WHAT IS HOMEOPATHY?

  • Involves giving people very dilute amounts of a substance that in larger amounts might produce symptoms similar to the condition being treated
  • For example, one remedy which might be used in a person suffering from insomnia would be made from coffee
  • Supporters believe homeopathy helps relieve a range of minor ailments from bruising to insomnia
  • But critics say it is no better than sugar pills and people only get better because they believe the treatment will work - the so-called placebo effect

"We risk as a society slipping back into a state of magical thinking when made-up science passes for rational discourse."

Peter Bamber, from the BMA's consultants committee, added: "If you want to buy a bottle of water go to the supermarket."

However, other doctors spoke in favour of homeopathy.

Dr John Garner, a GP from Edinburgh, said: "This [a ban] would deprive patients who have had a benefit."

And Dr David Shipstone, a urologist from the East Midlands, said it would be unfair to pick on homeopathy as there were plenty of other treatments which were used by doctors despite a lack of categorical evidence they worked.

"What is valid scientific evidence? Academics can argue about it all day."

The call by doctors comes after the House of Commons' Science and Technology Committee in February called for a similar ban on NHS funding, saying it could not be justified.

The Society of Homeopaths said there was evidence the remedies worked.

And a spokeswoman also pointed out that the amount of public money spent on it was very low.

She said: "The cost of homeopathy on the NHS is low - just 0.001% of the £11 billion drugs budget."

But the Department of Health said it was looking into the issue.

"The department is considering issues to do with homeopathic remedies and hospitals as part of the government's response to the Science and Technology Committee's report on homeopathy. The response will be issued soon."

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