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NHS Choices website becomes ‘neutral’ on homeopathy

Posted by on February 18, 2013

by Rebecca Nesbit, Society of Biology

* since I wrote this post, the NHS Choices website has been modified again with the introduction of a sentence stating that a Government report said  homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos 

The ongoing debate about whether homeopathy should be provided on the NHS has again stirred up controversy, particularly with modifications to the NHS Choices website and the appointment of a pro-homeopathy MP to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select committee.

Last month, England’s chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, told MPs that homeopathy is nothing more than a placebo, a view backed up by controlled clinical trials.

She was particularly concerned by the use of homeopathy as a way to prevent malaria or other infectious disease, a concern discussed in the March 2012 issue of The Biologist. If homeopathy is offered for these diseases does it cause patients to refuse treatment which is clinically effective?

However, as a result of lobbying by opponents, guidance on the NHS choices website has now been modified so the text doesn’t state that homeopathy is not clinically effective, only including links to the evidence. It starts:

“Homeopathy is a treatment based on the use of highly diluted substances, which practitioners believe can cause the body to heal itself.”

The comments below are extremely critical of this stance, and I would agree with them. If the NHS makes it clear that homeopathy is nothing but a placebo, arguably this provides a way to prescribe a placebo legitimately, thus taking advantage of the powerful placebo effect without deceiving patients. However, the choice isn’t presented in this way.

The topic of homeopathic funding was raised at last year’s Voice of the Future, where young scientists had the chance to visit the House of Commons and question MPs on science policy, funding, education and careers. This was a direct role reversal from when Professor Davies was questioned by the Science and Technology committee.

MPs answered to defend NHS provision of homeopathy not for scientific reasons, but as providing a service that tax payers want. There were some sharp intakes of breath in the audience, so perhaps the subject will be revisited this year.

If you have a question to ask MPs at Voice of the Future 2013, please submit it by the end of February. I’ll be tweeting from the event on 20th March (#VOF2013) and taking questions via Twitter. I certainly find the situations where opinion can override science a very interesting topic, as I have already discussed in relation to GM crops, and I hope we get some questions to explore this.

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