The random thoughts of a sceptical activist

Homeopathy regulation: there’s nothing in it

Is ‘homeopathic’ an accurate description of self-regulation?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) are paragons of efficiency and professionalism. They may well have a lot to deal with at the moment, but that does not stop them investigating complaints thoroughly and responsibly. They take the business of regulation seriously and have a well-deserved reputation for being fair, independent and impartial.

That’s how a regulator should conduct its business if they are to be seen as thorough and effective, particularly where there is a need to protect the public from those who would prey on their trust, ignorance or vulnerability.

The ASA have an advantage over the trade bodies that parade their Code of Ethics as banners of respectability to entice the public to believe their members are being properly regulated. The ASA operate at arms length from those who fund them: those who decide on whether an advert is legal, decent, honest and truthful treat all complaints equally, regardless of who the advertiser is or who the complainant is.

It’s a pity the same cannot be said for the ‘regulators’ of purveyors of ‘alternative’ therapies.

Instead, most of these so-called regulators are trade bodies who also promote the interests of their members. This must inevitably create a conflict of interest.

After I won an ASA adjudication against Dr Batra’s Positive Health Clinic about an ad placed in my local newspaper (see Is there a Doctor in the clinic?), based in Harley Street, I complained to both the Society of Homeopaths (SoH) and the Homeopathic Medical Association (HMA). The homeopath at the clinic, Irfan Molvi, appeared to be a member of the SoH, while the owner of the clinic, Mukesk Batra, a member of the HMA.

Society of Homeopaths

Their response to my complaint was to enclose a letter from Molvi to the SoH and saying:

I believe he has addressed the concerns you have raised. In this case no further action will be taken in this matter.

Molvi’s letter said:

As discussed [with the SoH], I do not feel that the complaint is pertaining to me as I am not involved in any kind of advertisement or marketing for the Company’s i.e. Dr Batra’s website.

In relation to the complaint I just wanted to let you know that the people involved with the advertisement of the Company are aware about the complaint and are dealing with it.

Also as discussed with [the SoH] I have already blocked my personal website and would appreciate if you could send me some guidelines on creating a website which is ASA complaint.

As far as I can find out, Molvi is the only homeopath at that clinic and its owners are Akshay Batra and Mukesh Batra, who give an address in Mumbai. So, who placed the advert in my local London paper? Was it the Batras from Mumbai, Molvi in London, or someone else? Surely someone has to take responsibility for the misleading ad and for changing it to comply with the ASA’s adjudication and CAP Code?

At the time of my complaint, the domain name drbatras.co.uk, registered to ‘Dr. Batras Positive Health Clinic Limited’, automatically redirected to the drbatras.com website. Since then, however, the .co.uk website has been made a separate website (hosted on the same server in Mumbai), but seems to have exactly the same content as the .com — and with all the same claims and problems.

A little homeopathy goes a long way

Then there’s Molvi’s own website. Since he mentioned it in his letter, I thought I’d double-check it was ‘blocked’ as he claimed.

It appears that his website is www.criticarehealth.co.uk, which has the tag line “Homeopathy, a little goes a long way…”. This domain name is registered to Molvi, but it’s perfectly visible and not blocked, so perhaps he has already been given advice from the SoH and ensured it is ASA-complaint?

The About Mr . Irfan Molvi (cached) page says:

Specially recognised for the unusual treatment of various ailments given up by the best of medical fraternity world over; Mr Irfan has established an exclusive practice in the treatment of disorders from such diverse fields as Gynaecology, Paediatrics, Neurology, Orthopaedics, Oncology etc. More so, he has done Special-work through Clinical-research, in the following conditions:

Undiagnosed Diseases. Cancer. Infertility. In Children – Respiratory Disorders, Memory Enhancement, Migraines. Insomnia. Women’s Disorders & Menopausal Syndrome.

And on this page (cached):

Homeopathy is ideal for babies and children as it is a gentle yet highly effective system of medicine. The mildly sweet pills, powders or liquids are easy to dispense and are more palatable than many conventional medicines. The highly diluted natural substances that form homeopathic remedies mean that they are safe to use in the very young, including newborn babies. More than that, homeopathy can raise the immunity of your children to help deal with illness throughout their childhood (1).

Homeopathy not only helps when your child is ill. It can also help prevent illness and give support through difficult periods of their life.

Complaints that need professional treatment include cradle-cap, recurrent vomiting, sleep problems, digestive trouble, pain, recurrent infections, asthma and eczema, menstrual problems and acne in teenagers, as well as developmental and behavioural problems such as attention deficit disorder, temper tantrums, severe shyness and anxiety.

Homeopathy works fast with children because they are usually full of vitality. Acute conditions such as ear infections, tonsillitis and flu, can be resolved rapidly using the right remedies, often avoiding the need for conventional medicines. Babies also tend to respond quickly to homeopathic treatment

“Homeopathy works fast with children because they are usually full of vitality”

It would appear not, then.

I asked the SoH whether they think it complies with their guidelines, their Code of Ethics and Practice and the ASA’s CAP Code. They reiterated that Molvi has ‘blocked’ his personal website:

…pending updating to be compliant with ASA guidance.

Since www.criticarehealth.co.uk is entirely accessible to the public, I have to wonder if they have a homeopathic meaning for the word ‘blocked’.

Homeopathic Medical Association

Where  poor regulation is concerned, the SoH have form, as Andy Lewis has found out, but the Homeopathic Medical Association have had a lower profile (and less than 200 members as opposed to the SoH’s 1,200-odd members), so this was a good opportunity to see if they were any more concerned with protecting the public from misleading claims. I submitted my complaint.

Unlike the SoH, the HMA’s Code of Ethics and Practice (cached) doesn’t mention the ASA’s CAP Code specifically, but it does say:

6. ADVERTISING AND THE MEDIA.

Members may advertise their professional services as follows:-

6.1. Name Plates of a modest size may be displayed outside the Member’s surgery.

6.2. No Member may use the title Doctor or Physician in their Homeopathic advertising unless registered with the General Medical Council.

6.3. If the title Dr is used in other forms of advertising, then it must be stated clearly what the qualification refers to (e.g. PhD).

6.4. Advertising must be discreet and not designed to mislead the public.

6.5. No advertisement may claim or imply any superiority over the professional services provided by other practitioners, nor give the impression that the Member is a specialist in the treatment of a particular disease.

6.6. No advertising may be used that claims to cure named diseases.

It’s certainly clear to me that Batra’s ad fell foul of most of these. (And there is no Mukesh Batra or Irfan Molvi in the GMC’s List of Registered Medical Practitioners.)

How did the HMA respond to my complaint?

Thank you for your email of 28th April 2011 in which you detail various adjudications made by the ASA. Your complaint is against the following two named persons (1) Mukesh Batra (2) Irfan Molvi.

The HMA would like to inform you that (1) Mukesh Batra is not a registered member of the HMA, and his premises of work do not appear in our annual register. However, Mukesh Batra was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the HMA, for his contribution to the Homeopathic Profession. Therefore, we will be advising Mr Batra of the criteria for advertising as specified in Section 6 of the HMA’s Code of Ethics and Practice.

We can confirm that (2) Irfan Molvi is not a registered member of the HMA and therefore is not bound by its Code of Ethics and Practice

I have no idea why they mentioned that Batra’s premises were not on their register — I made no complaint about the premises. And I only detailed one ASA adjudication, not ‘various adjudications’.

Then they get even more confused. They don’t seem to know their own membership categories.

They say Batra isn’t a registered member. However, his details were available in their public list of Registered Homeopaths at the time of my complaint, but they have magically disappeared since. Odd.

They say he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship. According to their website, Fellowships are only awarded to registered members. Odd again.

So is Batra a registered member or isn’t he?

Regardless, at least their Code of Practice and Ethics is clear that even Fellows are bound by it — see clause 1.7.

Rules are rules

One of the basic principles of complaints procedures and disciplinary procedures is that you must do what they say — you can’t just make it up as you go along and you can’t deviate. If they say what must be done, that must be followed to the letter; if they give discretionary powers, then these powers may be exercised. But if they limit those powers, then woe betide anyone who oversteps the mark set by those procedures. Natural justice dictates that both sides know in advance how a complaint will be investigated, prosecuted and resolved. If they are treated flippantly or even with disdain, then they are open to be legally challenged by either side and any such action could bring the whole organisation into disrepute.

I was informed of the HMA’s decision by an anonymous email from their Professional Conduct Committee and was told that they would be advising Batra about his advertising.

Let’s look at how they say they handle complaints.

The HMA’s procedures for dealing with a complaint are detailed in clause 8.2 of their Code of Ethics and Practice and are amateurish, badly written and jumbled.

However, it’s not clear from the meagre details provided by the PCC how far my complaint progressed through their ‘procedure’. They must have appointed a Preliminary Investigation Officer (clause 8.4.1), of course, to look at my complaint and decide whether there was a case to answer.

But the powers of the Preliminary Investigation Officer (PIO) are limited by clause 8.4.3 to:

i) make any enquiries considered necessary to help establish the facts.

ii) recommend that the parties attend an informal meeting to resolve the issues between themselves

iii) decide that there is no case to answer and inform both parties of the decision

iv ) refer the case to the Professional Conduct Committee for further consideration.

I don’t know whether the PIO made any enquiries: they certainly never asked me any questions. I was also never asked to attend any meeting, so that rules out the second option.

Did they decide that there was a case to answer? I wasn’t informed that they did.

Did the PIO refer it to the PCC for further consideration? I’ve no idea — they didn’t tell me. But that seems to be the only disposal open to the PIO, given that I’ve not been informed of either the other two options.

Let’s assume they did pass it to the PCC for further consideration.

Three people are assigned to deal with my complaint, apparently. But, according to clause 8.6.1, the must convene a formal hearing.

I have no idea whether they did or not, because they haven’t told me, but if they did, the procedure only gives the PCC the power to do one of the following (clause 8.7.6.):

On consideration of the evidence the committee may:-

i) adjourn for further deliberation

ii) dismiss the complaint and exonerate the Member

iii) issue a warning or admonishment to the Member.

iv) suspend membership for a stated limited period of time with or without stated conditions

v) expel the Member from the HMA and remove his/her name from the register.

(ii & iii may be subject to any conditions the Committee thinks fit).

They have no other options; their procedure gives them no other powers of disposal.

But what the email I received said they did was to have a word with him about his advertising. That doesn’t sound like being exonerated but it certainly didn’t sound like a warning or an admonishment either.

Just which part of the procedure did they invoke? Indeed, what procedure did they follow, if any?

I asked them some detailed questions in order to better understand all of this:

1. I did not ‘detail various adjudications made by the ASA’. I only gave summary information of one adjudication made by the ASA that was directly against the advertiser, Dr Batra’s Positive Health Clinic (UK) Ltd.

2. I note from your website that your membership categories are ‘Associate/Student membership’, ‘Full Members’ and ‘Fellowship’. I also note that Fellowships are awarded to members. I further note that your Code of Ethics and Practice states at 1.7 that it ‘applies to all Members, i.e. Fellows, Full Members and, where applicable, to Students.’

3. You state that ‘Mukesh Batra is not a registered member of the HMA’. Can you explain what a ‘registered member’ is and what you mean when you state that Mukesh Batra is not a registered member of the HMA?

4. Can you confirm he was a Fellow, a Full Member or a Student member at the time of placing the advert and at the time of my complaint and that he was therefore bound by your Code of Ethics and Practice?

5. Can you explain why his details were available in your public website register when I submitted my complaint on 28 April 2011, but are not available now?

6. Can you confirm if the Preliminary Investigation Officer made any enquiries considered necessary to help establish the facts of the case? If so, please detail the facts as established.

7. Can you confirm that the Preliminary Investigation Officer referred my complaint to the Professional Conduct Committee for further consideration?

8. Can you confirm when the formal hearing was held?

9. I note that your Code of Ethics and Practice at 8.7.6 lists five disposals available to the Professional Conduct Committee. Please confirm which of these the Professional Conduct Committee decided on in the case of my complaint.

10. Please detail which paragraphs of your Code of Ethics and Practice the Professional Conduct Committee decided Mukesh Batra had breached.

11. Please supply a copy of the Professional Conduct Committee’s decision notice.

12. Please provide a copy of your Rules, Aims, Objects as mentioned in 8.1.1 and 8.7.8 of your Code of Ethics and Practice and the rules and regulations as mentioned in your Full Membership Application Form.

13. Can you confirm you will inform me if Mukesh Batra notifies you of his intention to appeal your decision?

14. I note that his website appears to be in breach of the ASA’s CAP Code, their adjudication and your Code of Ethics and Practice. Can you confirm what action you will now take?

15. Can you confirm that, in the light of this adverse ASA adjudication and my complaint, you will take the opportunity to remind all your members of the requirements of your Code of Ethics and Practice and the requirements of the ASA’s CAP Code?

Very detailed, yes, but I don’t think it unreasonable to expect a complainant to fully understand how their complaint has been prosecuted and dealt with, particularly since the response seems so muddled and doesn’t seem to be following their published procedure.

I got a answer:

The Professional Conduct Committee have investigated your complaint and issued you with a thorough and considered response.

We now regard the matter as closed.

I was wrong: that isn’t any kind of an answer. This refusal to engage with a complainant with a legitimate complaint is not an acceptable way for a regulator to behave — not a professional one, anyway.

If the SoH and the HMA can’t or won’t regulate their members in a professional manner that protects the public, they are simply give misleading and undeserved legitimacy to their members in the eyes of the public.

But if they can’t or won’t regulate properly and protect the public, who will?

One Response to Homeopathy regulation: there’s nothing in it

  • “The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) are paragons of efficiency and professionalism.”

    Are we talking about the same ASA? I grant you, they are certainly paragons of efficiency and professionalism in comparison with the shockingly appalling behaviour from the homeopathic regulators that you describe, but they still let a lot of guff go through in adverts.

    I’ve blogged about this before here:
    http://dianthus.co.uk/why-you-should-not-believe-a-word-in-adverts

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