Homeopathy is ambiguous under the NHS


The legal and regulatory status of homeopathy is in conflict with how the NHS treats and funds it.  Although the NHS describes homeopathy as an ineffective placebo medicine at best, it has continued to provide state funded homeopathic treatments. Ambiguity in the way the NHS treats homeopathy has resulted in confusion. Neither the providers of treatment nor the people being treated know where they stand legally.

What is homeopathy?

Homeopathy is an alternative system of medicine based on the ideas of Samuel Hahnemann, a 16 Century German Doctor.  The first principle of homeopathy is that “like cures like”. This means that the same substance that causes certain symptoms can also help get rid of them.   The second is the idea that the greater the dilution of a substance, the higher its power to treat symptoms.

An ambivalent stance

The NHS says there is no good-quality evidence that homeopathy is effective as a treatment for any health condition.  On their website, the NHS states that there is “no scientifically plausible way that homeopathy can prevent diseases”.  In terms of government policy, the Department of Health goes so far as to say it does “not endorse” the prescription of homeopathic remedies on the NHS.

But the NHS is still funding homeopathy.  In the 2013/14 year, they gave out 4.6 million pounds for homeopathic treatments. There are currently several NHS homeopathic hospitals. Some GP practices offer homeopathic treatment as well.

The Select Committee on Science and Technology concluded in 2010 that the NHS’s decision to fund homeopathy was not a sound one. Their stated that: “the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency] should stop licensing homeopathic products.”

Supporters of homeopathy believe that all patients should have the choice to access alternative treatments at the taxpayers’ expense because “health choices should not be limited by ability to pay”.  They claim that “There is a growing body of evidence to show that homeopathy has a positive effect” and that “more than two thirds of patients say the remedies have helped them.”

The British Homeopathic Association, a charity promoting patient access to homeopathy, is running a campaign to keep homeopathy NHS funded.

Legal status and regulatory issues

Strong campaigning in recent years has occurred on both sides of the homeopathy debate.  The latest legal decisions have appeared to go against the pro-homeopathic camp.  A recent judicial review failed in its intent to reinstate funding for homeopathy.

Homeopaths are not legally regulated in the UK as regular medical practitioners are. Even if someone has no qualifications or experience they can legally practice homeopathy on patients. A representative from a medical law firm called Patient Claim Line, said that “the legal concept of medical negligence not only applies to doctors, but to every health care provider. But in the UK, Homeopathy practitioners are not legally required to adhere to any standards of practice. If you have a complaint about treatment you have received from a homeopath, you have no special legal rights beyond normal civil and criminal law.”

Some complementary therapies are associated with organizations that keep basic registers.  For example, the British Homeopathic Association holds practitioner registers.

Others have volunteer regulation. If someone in a statutorily regulated health profession chooses to also practice homeopathy, they can choose to register with a voluntary regulatory association like the Faculty of Homeopathy.  This organization wouldn’t regulate complementary medicine practitioners registered with them, but they would investigate misconduct claims.

The future of homeopathy

Homeopathy services have been in decline over the past few years.

Several homeopathic hospitals have closed:

Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital in 2008; The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital in 2010 and the Devon Homeopathic Outreach Clinic in 2012.  Liverpool NHS is also reviewing its spending on homeopathy after being threatened with legal challenge by scientists and doctors.

A strong anti-homeopathy campaign to cut off NHS funding has seen many NHS bodies around the country start “ either reviewing or ending their homeopathy spending”. Recent legal decisions have also gone against supporters of homeopathy.

Homeopathy has an uncertain future, but clarification may be coming. There is currently a comprehensive review of products which can be prescribed and reimbursed by the NHS underway.  The review includes homeopathic remedies.

This is the last chance for advocates of homeopathy to influence the decision about NHS funding.  Much will depend on whether the UK homeopathy industry can turn around the massive and rapid decline in service usage.

Jose Calvo