Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Homeopathy is worthless... says an expert in the subject as he claims it is unethical to prescribe treatments on NHS

Homeopathic potions do not work and it is unethical to give them on the NHS, a leading scientist has claimed. Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine, also described the logic behind homeopathy as bizarre and accused homeopaths of lying to their patients.

The NHS spends around £4million a year on homeopathy, despite calls from the British Medical Association for the funding to end.

The discipline – which has won the backing of Prince Charles – claims to prevent and treat diseases by using dilute forms of materials that in higher concentrations could produce the symptoms of the condition.

Homeopaths also believe that the greater the dilution of the medicine, the more potent the potion, and so ingredients are mixed in tiny amounts with water or alcohol.

A typical remedy could have one part of an ingredient to one trillion, trillion parts of water. Although scientists argue the potions are so dilute they are unlikely to contain any of the original substance, homeopaths claim the water retains a ‘memory’ of the active ingredient, which it passes to the body to help fight the illness.

But Professor Ernst said that even if an ultra-dilute homeopathic solution was somehow different from pure water, this would not make it an effective drug.

Writing in the Society of Biology’s magazine, The Biologist, he said: ‘How would this difference explain positive health benefits? The water in my kitchen sink also differs from pure water after the washing up but this does not mean it is good for my health.’

Professor Ernst, a former homeopath who now researches complementary medicine at Exeter University, said the treatments could be dangerous if people chose them over conventional medicines with proven benefits. He accused homeopaths who cite studies showing the treatments work of ‘cherry-picking’ results.

However, the professor saved his most scathing criticism for the Government. He said if a homeopath doesn’t tell a patient that the treatment is worthless, he is not telling the truth. Modern medical ethics state that patients must be fully informed and telling lies to patients is not acceptable. ‘It follows that the Government’s decision to continue offering homeopathy on the NHS is not ethical.’

The Commons science and technology committee recently criticised state funding of the treatments, saying it conferred scientific legitimacy.

Dr Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology, said: ‘The UK spends literally billions of pounds every year ensuring that the new and existing conventional medicines we take are effective, safe and fit for purpose. ‘It makes no sense to allow other treatments through public expenditure to be made available without application of the same standards.’

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: ‘We believe in patients being able to make informed choices about their treatment, and in a clinician being able to prescribe the treatment they feel most appropriate in particular circumstances, which may include complementary or alternative treatments such as homeopathy.’ He said that in 2010 around 0.001 per cent of the overall drugs bill was spent on prescriptions for homeopathic medicines.


Alternative medicine crackdown in Australia

Tests required for scientific medicine should be required "a fortiori" for quack medicine too

Homeopaths are facing a fight to defend their practice in Australia after the National Health and Medical Research Council flagged it might declare their work baseless and unethical.

A draft public statement seen by The Age concluded it was "unethical for health practitioners to treat patients using homeopathy, for the reason that homeopathy (as a medicine or procedure) has been shown not to be efficacious".

The confidential statement, which was not meant to be distributed, is based on a 2010 evaluation of homeopathy by the British House of Commons science and technology committee, which declared it was no more efficacious than a placebo.

Homeopathy is based on the principles of "like-cures-like" and "ultra-dilutions". The first says substances that can cause symptoms can be used in diluted form to treat the same symptom in an illness, and the second says the more dilute a substance is, the more potent it is.

While homeopathy continues to enjoy the support of Britain's royal family and is funded through the UK's National Health Service, the House of Commons report found its principles were "theoretically weak" and "scientifically implausible".

The draft statement by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council said that although homeopathy was not harmful in its own right, it might pose a risk to patients if safe and efficacious conventional treatments were delayed in favour of homeopathic treatments.

It said homeopathy, which uses a large range of animal, plant and mineral products, should not be confused with herbal remedies.

A council spokesman would not comment on the draft, but said it was reviewing the efficacy of complementary and alternative medicines, including homeopathy, and would release its findings in due course.

Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton backed the council's draft statement. He said he hoped it would force health insurers to reconsider their funding of homeopathy, as well as other "questionable" therapies such as iridology and reflexology.

"I think it will put them in a very difficult situation … If the NHMRC looks at the evidence and says this doesn't work, we can't support it, you'd have to ask the insurers if they will continue to fund something that a very reputable body disagrees with," he said.

The Australian Association of Professional Homeopaths Inc says 47 health insurers, including Medibank Private and NIB, cover homeopathic consultations and medicines.

Australian Homeopathic Association president Greg Cope said there was strong evidence to support the practice, including clinical trials that were now being submitted to the NHMRC for consideration.

He said there were about 700 registered homeopaths in Australia under a self-governed registration model, and they worked to a code of conduct. Consultations typically cost $50 to $100, with medicines usually costing a further $10.

Mr Cope said he had been lobbying Canberra to set up a formal registration scheme, similar to those for doctors and nurses. He said health insurers were wise to fund homeopathy, which was used by thousands of Australians. "It's a very popular therapy and I imagine it would reduce their expenses because it attracts people using low-cost healthcare," he said.

Writing in the Journal of Law and Medicine this week, Melbourne barrister Ian Freckleton, SC, said several recent deaths involving homeopaths highlighted the dangers involved when they steered people away from conventional medicine.

Dr Freckleton cited the case of Perth woman Penelope Dingle, who died from bowel cancer in 2005 after spending about $30,000 on unsuccessful homeopathic treatments, including extracts from the venus flytrap plant.

He also cited the death in 2009 of Gloria Thomas, age nine months, after her parents favoured homeopathy over conventional medicine for severe eczema.

Dr Freckleton said although many aspects of Western medicine had not been able to stand up to full scientific analysis of their underpinnings over time, there was an "urgent need" for the health sector, consumer protection authorities and policymakers to protect the community from dangerous homeopathic practices.

He said homeopaths had used crushed-up pieces of the Berlin Wall to treat depression.

And in the latest edition of the journal Spectrum of Homeopathy, the authors detailed the use of wolf's milk for eczema and bulimia, cheetah's blood for multiple sclerosis and tiger's blood for depression. "It's quite remarkable," he said.


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