The random thoughts of a sceptical activist

Homeopathy

Paying the price of homeopathic research

Do homeopaths’ claims that trials are too expensive and that they can’t afford them hold water?

Science is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results. Which part of that exactly do you disagree with?

— Dr Steven Novella

Homeopaths have an ambivalent attitude to research: they are quick to jump on any results they think support their pseudo scientific beliefs, yet any paper that shows homeopathy to be no better than placebo is denounced, usually with cries that the ‘homeopathic system of personalised, holistic medicine’ is just not suited to being tested using flawed ‘conventional’ double-blind randomised controlled trials (DBRCT). And sometimes Big Pharma tell lies.

But homeopaths have a problem: all advertising in the UK has to comply with the Advertising Standards Authority’s CAP Code and this rightly demands a high standard of evidence for any claim, regardless of whether it’s about how clean a soap powder makes your whites, how efficient double-glazed windows are or how much a skin cream reduces the appearance of wrinkles. So it is with homeopathy: high quality evidence is required.

There have been several ASA adjudications recently against homeopaths (eg  Steve Scrutton), homeopath trade bodies (eg the Society of Homeopaths — and you must watch this superb demolition of their ‘evidence’) and homeopath advocacy groups (eg H:MC21) and these have shown the paucity and extreme poor quality of homeopathic research.

researchBut there doesn’t seem to be that much new research being conducted that might allow claims to be made in the future. Instead, there are moves to try to persuade the ASA to lower their standards in the hope their evidence will meet this easier threshold, campaigns to oppose the ASA, petitions raised to force the ASA to change its ways, with frequent shouts of ‘Censorship!’, ‘Bias!’, ‘Freedom of speech!’ and double standards.

There are even moves afoot to ‘re-categorise’ the literature on homeopathy. This is in the early stages and will probably take a few more years to complete, but there will be no prizes for guessing what the conclusions are likely to be — a comparison with the farce surrounding the Swiss report on homeopathy is inevitable.

Patient success stories Anecdotes

But homeopaths insist there is ample proof that homeopathy works already, and are keen to point out the large numbers using homeopathy as if that was an indication of efficacy. Ah, that old canard — evidence in the form of anecdotes — doesn’t wash with anyone even vaguely aware of the problems of bias and with an interest in getting to the truth of the matter; and certainly not up to the ASA’s standards.  Many websites of homeopaths laud their customer testimonials and there are several websites that actively gather anecdotes (or ‘patient success stories’ as they sometimes like to call them) such as Homeopathy Worked for MePatient Testimonials and a relatively new one, Making Cases Count. And of course there are their celebrity endorsements; where would homeopaths be without their celebrity endorsements?

A number of anecdotes may indicate that something is worth looking at in more detail, but they are no indication of the efficacy of homeopathy and they certainly don’t change the state of the robust, independent evidence for homeopathy — or rather, the lack of it.

Many homeopaths rubbish science of course, dismissing it as reductionist and entirely unsuitable as a means of testing their precious homeopathy. But they fundamentally misunderstand science. As Dr Steven Novella puts it:

What do you think science is? There’s nothing magical about science. It is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results. Which part of that exactly do you disagree with? Do you disagree with being thorough? Using careful observation? Being systematic? Or using consistent logic?

Yet homeopaths crave scientific respectability — they laud (erroneously), for example, the neutral Swiss Government for their highly positive homeopathy HTA and just about every half-baked study they can twist to make it support their favourite hobby-horse. They know that they will not make the progress they believe they deserve unless they can, finally, provide that good scientific evidence they just know is waiting to be found. As I’ve mentioned, it was this lack of good evidence that lost both the Society of Homeopaths and the homeopathy advocacy organisation, Homeopathy: medicine for the 21st Century (H:MC21) their Advertising Standards Authority adjudications for claims they had made in adverts. Not just on a few minor points here and there, but a complete and utter demolition of their homeopathic claims.

Academia

There are even some university academics who spend their time researching homeopathy, such as homeopath Dr Clare Relton, Senior Research Fellow at the  University of Sheffield and homeopath Dr Elizabeth Thompson, Consultant Homeopathic Physician [sic] and Honorary Senior Lecturer in Palliative Medicine at University Hospitals Bristol. There are many others as well who see themselves as legitimately researching their sugar pills.

There are even organisations whose sole purpose is to improve research into homeopathy. Take the Homeopathy Research Institute (HRI):

The Homeopathy Research Institute is an innovative international charity created to address the need for high quality scientific research in homeopathy. We use our resources and expertise to foster new projects and to improve the quality of research being carried out in the field.

They may well think they are an ‘innovative international charity’, but you’d be forgiven for doubting that looking at their registered address of 39 Great Windmill Street, London W1D 7LX.

Anyway, the HRI heralded that their conference in Barcelona this year would be, “A significant step forward for homeopathy research“. A critical thinker might be considerably less than underwhelmed by what actually happened.

But at least they are trying to do some research; and scientific to boot. Indeed, they have seven research projects running at the moment:

  • Case series of 20 children diagnosed with ADHD treated with homeopathy for a year
  • Depression – What is the role of treatment by homeopaths?
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) randomised controlled trial
  • Online database of homeopathic scientific literature
  • Physico-chemical properties of homeopathic dilutions
  • Physics of homeopathic dilutions
  • Theories of homeopathic dilutions

Well, by ‘running’, I mean that they are trying to raise the money to fund them.

This list certainly covers a lot of ground; most don’t require any research to answer, though…

But the one on depression says it’s simply part of a PhD:

This project will evaluate the acceptability and the comparative effectiveness of adjunctive treatment provided by homeopaths for patients with self-reported depression, in addition to usual care.

So it’s guaranteed to give positive results even before it’s started!

Follow the money

But how much does this research cost and how on earth could they raise the money?

We are continually told that DBRCTs cost a fortune to conduct and poor homeopaths could not possibly afford them. Dr Michael Dixon has said:

In conventional medicine, pharmaceutical companies have the advantage of having funds for research. Alternative medicine lacks that.

It seems like homeopaths are so adept at coming up with excuses, anyone would think they can anticipate the outcomes…

But, other than tapping the likes of leading homeopathy manufacturer Boiron — with its market capitalisation value of just under 1 billion Euros — how on earth can they afford this very necessary research? Until they have positive results from robust, high quality trials, they will not be able to make the claims they might like to in their advertising, so the onus is definitely on them to do whatever’s required to advertise their businesses honestly.

Fortunately, the HRI have an answer: they want to raise money for their research from the public using JustGiving and BT’s MyDonate donation websites:

 

Title
Target
Online
donations
Number
Offline
donations
Gift Aid
Total
% online
% total
Total

ϣ196,000

£œ11,510

20

ϣ28,000

£œ5

ϣ39,515

6%

20%

Depression: What is the role of treatment by homeopaths?

£œ98,000

ϣ10,020

2

£œ0

ϣ5

ϣ10,025

10%

10%

Homeopathy Research Database

£œ40,000

£œ0

0

£œ0

£œ0

£œ0

0%

0%

IBS Trial: Phase 2 Fundraising Appeal

£œ15,000

£œ1,490

18

ϣ0

£œ0

£œ1,490

10%

10%

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) randomised controlled trial

£œ10,000

£œ0

0

ϣ5,000

£œ0

£œ5,000

0%

50%

Physico-chemical properties of homeopathic dilutions

£œ10,000

ϣ0

0

£œ10,000

£œ0

ϣ10,000

0%

100%

A new quantum theory to explain homeopathy

ϣ10,000

£œ0

0

£œ10,000

£œ0

ϣ10,000

0%

100%

Physics of homeopathic dilutions

ϣ5,000

£œ0

0

£œ0

£œ0

£œ0

0%

0%

Theories of homeopathic dilutions

£œ5,000

£œ0

0

ϣ0

£œ0

ϣ0

0%

0%

ADHD case series

ϣ3,000

£œ0

0

ϣ3,000

£œ0

£œ3,000

0%

100%

 

Of course, these are just the target amounts they want to raise from donations and they could have additional funding secured from elsewhere, but note that four of them have offline donations already.

moneybagThis could also answer the question about how much a homeopathic trial costs and it won’t go unnoticed that the Q-word rears its ugly head.

Positive by design

Their two IBS projects (IBS Trial: Phase 2 Fundraising Appeal and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) randomised controlled trial) are raising funds from two different websites: one with a target of £15,000 and the other of £10,000. However, in the past 12 months, excluding a one-off online donation of £10,000, they have raised a grand total of just £1,490 from the public.

But maybe these are one and the same trial? They certainly appear to be — and it is this trial that is discussed by Prof Edzard Ernst: Homeopathy for IBS? When will we stop wasting resources on such useless pseudo-research?

Prof Ernst links to a new study and this has the same trial registration number as the one on the HRI’s website: ISRCTN90651143. As he points out:

We are again dealing with an A+B versus B design, on top of it without patient- or therapist-blinding. This type of analysis cannot ever produce a negative result, even if the experimental treatment is a pure placebo: placebo + usual care is always more than usual care alone. IBS-patients will certainly experience benefit from having the homeopaths’ time, empathy and compassion – never mind the remedies they get from them. And for the secondary analyses, things do not seem to be much more rigorous either.

He concludes:

Obviously, I have not seen the data (they have not yet been published) but I think I can nevertheless predict the conclusions of the primary analysis of this trial; they will read something like this: HOMEOPATHY PROVED TO BE SIGNIFICANTLY MORE EFFECTIVE THAN USUAL CARE. I have asked the question before and I do it again: when does this sort of ‘research’ cross the line into the realm of scientific misconduct?

Indeed.

That protocol document says:

This trial has received NHS approval and results are expected in 2013.

It received Barnsley Hospital internal approval on 14 December 2009, ethics committee approval on 9 December 2010, and the protocol paper was  published a further two years later, on 6 November 2012.

So, having published the protocol, and with the Current Controlled Trials entry saying it is completed, with an anticipated end date of 31 December 2012, what is the current status of this research? I don’t know. Perhaps they still need money to analyse the results and write up the paper?

Touting for money

Various homeopathic organisations were advertising this trial last December: Australian Homeopathy Plus and the HRI issued an urgent fundraising appeal in December 2012:

Vital IBS trial needs your help
Funding needed: £15,000 Total raised so far: £1,900

Then in March 2103, they said:

Fundraising
IBS trial fundraising appeal – update

On behalf of the researchers at Barnsley Hospital involved in the Homeopathy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome trial (HIBS), HRI would like to thank everyone who donated to our fundraising appeal last November in support of this project. There was a hugely positive response to our appeal, with many warm messages of support as well as donations which totalled just over £2,000. In these hard times, it was a fantastic response from individuals. Click here to find out exactly how these funds are going to be put to use.

“There was a hugely positive response to our appeal”? It doesn’t matter what the true figure is, whether it’s £1,490, £1,900 or even £2,000, it falls dramatically short of the £15,000 they said they needed. I think they mean ‘a truly homeopathic response to our appeal’.

But they go on to give the bad news:

However, shortly after these funds were raised, changes at Barnsley Hospital meant that it would no longer be possible to carry out a second phase of the trial (involving recruitement [sic] of more patients) as intended. Instead, the aim now is to publish the existing HIBS trial results which, in the opinion of Prof Kate Thomas (an expert in Health Services Research) form a “robust pragmatic pilot study”.

After much discussion with stakeholders and those who made donations, the money raised by HRI will be used to provide seed funding for Jackie Raw RSHom (homeopath and HIBS project manager) to carry out a one-year prospective service evaluation of her work providing individualised homeopathic treatment for patients with IBS at Barnsley Hosp NHS Foundation Trust. Jackie would be aiming to treat ~ 30 patients and the total cost of the project has been estimated at £5,000.

It’s just not clear to me what’s going on but I sincerely hope they weren’t raising money for a project that has already been completed!

Bringing home the bacon

But after failing to raise very much funding from their supporters, the HRI now want the taxpayer to pay for research! In their submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into antimicrobial resistance (AMR), they want the Department of Health to consider using magic sugar pills to combat the very real threat of resistant bacteria, viruses, etc.

Without a hint of irony, they ask:

1.3 HRI recommends that the Department of Health conducts research to determine definitively whether homeopathy is efficacious for [ear infections in children] (we suggest a multi-centred randomised placebo-controlled comparative trial).

1.4 HRI recommends that Defra conducts research to determine definitively whether the homeopathic medicine Coli 30K is efficacious for reducing the incidence of E.coli bacteria in neonatal piglets (we suggest a multi-centred observer blinded, randomised placebo-controlled trial).

Unbelievable.

And of course:

1.10 HRI would welcome the opportunity to assist the Department of Health and Defra in investigating the potential for homeopathy to play a role in tackling AMR.

I’m sure they would.

elephantElephants by the herd

Of course, the elephant in the room is the fact that, even though these fund-raising campaigns have been running for over a year, they have only managed to scrape together a measly 20 online donations. They do seem to have an anonymous offline benefactor, but even taking all donations into account, all they have managed to muster is 20% of their total.

So it seems that homeopaths and their customers aren’t too willing to pay for research.

Maybe we’re expecting too much here. Maybe the money just isn’t there in these straitened, austere times?

But maybe we also need some alternative thinking here: rather than wringing hands and saying it can’t be done, how much could be raised by practitioners with a small levy on each appointment? That sounds like an easy way of raising funding: from the very people who desperately need to keep on the right side of the rules for their advertising and who will benefit most from being backed by good scientific evidence.

After all, there are several thousand homeopaths plying their trade in the UK. The FindAHomeopath website boasts 3,032 who are members of either the Society of Homeopaths, the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths or the Homeopathic Medical Association. (They also claim to include members of the Faculty of Homeopathy/British Homeopathic Association, but none are listed.)

So, what could be raised if a small levy was charged on each appointment?

Shock! Horror!

shockGasps of horror from homeopaths!

You can imagine the objections:

  • We can’t afford it!
  • Our customers can’t afford it!
  • It’ll never work!
  • It’ll be too difficult!

Well, let’s see. Let’s find out how they could raise the funds for dozens of trials — let’s play with some numbers with a handy calculator and see what drops out.

How to use the research funding calculator

Enter:

  • the number of practitioners working in the therapy
  • the average number of appointments per day
  • the average number of days per week worked
  • the average number of weeks worked in a year
  • the average cost of an appointment
  • the percentage levy to be used to generate funds for research

The calculator will show the number of appointments per practitioner per year, the practitioner’s income per year, the total number of appointments per year, the levy per appointment and the total raised per year.

Calculator

50pSo, using these default values of 3,000 practitioners, doing just four appointments a day, four days a week, 40 weeks of the year, asking for just 1% (50p) more from each customer — or donating that small amount from profits — means that they would raise a research fund of just under £1 million — each and every year.

This 50p would cover the HRI’s puny total of £196,000 nearly five-times over; 10p would still just about cover it.

Even if the default numbers I’ve used are optimistic (perhaps lots of them just work part-time), it’s very easy to see how they could raise a significant amount of money very easily, with just a little effort.

Try some figures for yourself.

Alternative funding

Of course, these simple calculations can be applied to any therapy that is lacking in positive research such as reflexology, reiki, Bowen therapy, craniosacral therapy or any similar pseudo scientific nonsense.

If any practitioners — or their trade bodies — really wanted to try to come up with the good evidence they’re probably convinced exists, then what’s stopping them? After all, if they were able to produce good evidence, they might be able to convince the ASA to accept their advertising claims.

However, if they don’t even try to get good trials done, they will forever pay the price in their advertising.

Stop this unscientific meddling

The exposé  by Prof David Colquhoun of the interference by the Department of Health — at the behest of homeopathy promoters — in the publication of impartial, scientifically-based information about homeopathy on the NHS Choices website has been covered by the Guardian and the Daily Mail this past week.

Damned by their own words, the DoH said in response to the draft submitted by the editors of NHS Choices that mentioned the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s comprehensive Evidence Check report on homeopathy:

Can we remove this statement? This report is really quite contentious and we may well be subject to quite a lot of challenge from the Homeopathic community if published.

The statement was removed. What NHS Choices were eventually told to publish was a biased sop to homeopathy, including a list of the main homeopathy trade bodies and a list of medical conditions homeopathy could, apparently, treat.

Andy Lewis, on his excellent website, The Quackometer, asked that we contact our MP over this to demand NHS Choices be allowed to replace this biased page with one that properly reflects the scientific consensus on homeopathy so that the public can make properly informed choices in their health care.

Below is our email to our MP. We urge all those concerned about the public being given unbiased information to write to your own MP — please feel free to use whatever you feel useful.

We are concerned to read that the Department of Health has been interfering with the content of the NHS Choices website to the detriment of the public’s ability to make informed choices about health care.

It was reported in the Guardian on 13 February (Prince’s charity lobbied government to water down homeopathy criticism) and in the Daily Mail on 15 February (Homeopathy charity run by Charles ‘cowed civil servants’ into supporting the therapy) that the NHS Choices website editor had been prevented from stating the lack of scientific evidence for homeopathy for fear of lobbying from the ‘homeopathy community’. This debacle came to light after a Freedom of Information request by Professor David Colquhoun.

As a result of this interference, the page on homeopathy as it stands now is in danger of misleading the public into thinking that homeopathy may be able to treat potentially serious medical conditions such as asthma, ear infections, high blood pressure and depression when there is no scientific evidence to suggest this is the case.

In his response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check report on homeopathy (which recommended removal of all NHS funding for homeopathy because of the complete lack of scientific evidence), the Secretary of State for Health stated:

10. In order for the public to make informed choices, it is therefore vitally important that the scientific evidence base for homeopathy is clearly explained and available. He will therefore engage further with the Department of Health to ensure communication to the public is addressed. His position remains that the evidence of efficacy and the scientific basis of homeopathy is highly questionable.

He also stated:

14. The Government agrees that, when looking at the evidence base for efficacy, it is important to focus on the most scientifically robust studies and evidence.

It is therefore incomprehensible and deplorable that the Department of Health believes it now acceptable to tell the public that homeopathy can be used to treat the following:

  • asthma
  • depression
  • ear infections
  • hay fever
  • other mental health conditions, such as stress and anxiety
  • allergies, such as food allergies
  • dermatitis (an allergic skin condition)
  • arthritis
  • high blood pressure

For such a highly respected, informative and authoritative source of sound medical information such as NHS Choices to have been forced by the DoH into publishing such erroneous information on homeopathy is disgraceful and unacceptable.

This can only lead to the public being mislead and potentially making ill-advised and dangerous health care decisions.

As we are sure you are aware, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has recently made clear that homeopathy is ‘rubbish’. The DoH needs to heed this advice and allow NHS Choices to completely re-write the page on sound scientific and evidence-based principles.

We also note that Anna Soubry recently stated to the House:

The Department [of Health] does not maintain a position on any particular complementary or alternative medicine treatments including homeopathy.

We therefore ask you to request that the Secretary of State for Health explain these actions and that he allow NHS Choices the freedom to ensure that the public can make the informed choice that are entitled to make based on sound scientific evidence and principles and not to have that distorted by vested interests.

We look forward to receiving your reply.

Thanks and best regards.

I’ll let you know what response we get.

The bitter sugar pill

In his Guardian article, Homeopaths offer to rebrand products as ‘confectionery’, Martin Robbins tells the story that, faced with being unable to sell their products as homeopathic medicines because they were unlicensed, a manufacturer offered to re-brand them as sweets. The irony of that won’t be lost on many, but what else has been going on?

…sceptics [are] posing as genuine members of the public…

Thanks to his FOIA request, we now know that the medicines regulator, the MHRA, told homeopathy manufacturers Helios and Ainsworths to discontinue the sale and supply of a number of their kits of homeopathic products because they contained homeopathic products that were not registered (under the HR scheme) or authorised (under the NR scheme) and because the names of the kits were not as had been registered with the MHRA.

McCarthy-style reporting, encouraged by the self-appointed detractors of homoeopathy…has protracted this decline [in the homeopathy industry]

These two issues are important: under the Medicines Regulations, individual homeopathic products have to be registered or authorised by the MHRA, and so do kits of these products, with the name of the kits agreed with the MHRA.

Helios and Ainsworths fell foul of the Medicines Regulations on both counts.

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That ‘neutral’ Swiss homeopathy report

What does the Swiss Government really think about homeopathy?

By Sven Rudloff and Zeno

Jump to Postscript

A lot has been made by homeopaths about the ‘neutral’ Swiss Government’s report and its unequivocal support of homeopathy. It’s been lauded by the luminaries of the homeopathic world as further proof — as if any was needed, of course — that homeopathic ‘medicines’ are superior in every way to those dangerous and expensive pharmaceutical drugs.

Arch proponent of homeopathy, Dana Ullman, proclaimed:

The Swiss government’s exceedingly positive report on homeopathic medicine

The Swiss government has a long and widely-respected history of neutrality, and therefore, reports from this government on controversial subjects need to be taken more seriously than other reports from countries that are more strongly influenced by present economic and political constituencies.

In late 2011, the Swiss government’s report on homeopathic medicine represents the most comprehensive evaluation of homeopathic medicine ever written by a government and was just published in book form in English (Bornhoft and Matthiessen, 2011). This breakthrough report affirmed that homeopathic treatment is both effective and cost-effective and that homeopathic treatment should be reimbursed by Switzerland’s national health insurance program.

The provisional reimbursement for these alternative treatments ended in 2005, but as a result of this new study, the Swiss government’s health insurance program once again began to reimburse for homeopathy and select alternative treatments. (Source, cached)

Ullman again:

this report from the Swiss government has confirmed the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of homeopathic treatment. (Source, cached)

The Society of Homeopaths:

Swiss scientists endorse homeopathy evidence

Report says homeopathic medicine is clinically effective

A comprehensive and authoritative research study by Swiss scientists has offered an unambiguous endorsement of the evidence base for homeopathy as a clinically effective system of medicine.

Their report, part of a Swiss government evaluation of complementary and alternative medicines, gives a massive boost to the growing body of research underpinning the therapeutic effects of homeopathic medicine. (Source, cached)

The Faculty of Homeopathy and the British Homeopathic Association:

Evidence for homeopathy builds

Long-awaited English translation of Swiss study endorses evidence for homeopathy

This important report addresses the evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathic therapy in everyday use (i.e. the real world), its safety and its cost-effectiveness.

The authors, Doctor Gudrun Bornhöft and Professor Peter Matthiessen, state: “There is sufficient evidence for the preclinical effectiveness and the clinical efficacy of homeopathy and for its safety and economy compared with conventional treatment.”

Following on from the initial publication of this report, a public referendum in Switzerland in 2009 supported the inclusion of homeopathy and other complementary and alternative medicines in the Swiss national health insurance, with 67% of the people voting in favour. Earlier this month, the Swiss government passed legislation to enact the referendum’s conclusion. (Source, cached and source, cached)

GP and homeopath Dr Andrew Sikorski:

In 2009 a Swiss national referendum voted in favour of complementary medicine being part of the public health service which is now covered by the obligatory public health insurance system. This decision was partly informed by the findings of the 2006 Health Technology Assessment report commissioned by the Swiss Government on the effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness of homeopathy in general practice. (Sourcecached)

Many other websites have echoed these sentiments, with many taking their lead from Ullman’s article and possibly placing far too much reliance on what he had to say, eg Swiss Government finds homeopathy effective and cost efficient (cached).

You’d think from all this that the ‘neutral’ Swiss Government had taken to homeopathy like the proverbial quacking duck to water.

Of course, to state in this context that the Swiss Government has a ‘widely-respected history of neutrality’ is to conflate political neutrality with scientific objectivity.

As usual, research of truly homeopathic proportions, misrepresentation and cherry picking are the order of the day.

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Changing times for homeopaths

Many websites of homeopaths are changing. Some as a direct result of being contacted by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and some, no doubt, because, now they are aware of the ASA’s rules, want to be responsible and abide by them.

I’ve been watching several websites change over recent months: some delete a few words here and there; some have had to make substantial changes; and some have yet to make the necessary changes.

One of the websites I’ve been watching is the one belonging to the Society of Homeopaths.

Their home page had this:

Homeopathy is an evidence-based medicine which offers holistic, individual and integrated treatment with highly diluted substances with the aim of triggering the body’s natural system of healing.

A few days ago, they changed it to say:

Homeopathy is a form of holistic medicine in which treatment is tailored to the individual.

Have they finally realised that it’s not ‘an evidence-based medicine’; that there is no robust scientific evidence (ie the kind required by the ASA to protect the public from misleading claims) that homeopathic sugar pills have any effect over placebo?

I doubt it, but sooner or later homeopaths have to realise that they have to abide by the same rules as every other advertiser: if you make a claim, you must have robust evidence to substantiate it.

If a double-glazing seller claims his windows use an alternative glass that works far better than ‘conventional’ glass, then we would — rightly — expect him to be able to back up that with good evidence. There cannot be one standard for, say, double-glazing sellers and different, lower standard, for homeopaths.

And so with the homeopaths or any other advertiser of alternative therapies. Indeed, there could be a case made for requiring an even higher standard of evidence for claims about healthcare made to an unsuspecting public.

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Dangerous homeopathy

It’s bad enough when homeopaths take good money from people, claiming they can cure their colds or clear up their eczema with sugar pills. It’s another thing entirely to claim to prevent or treat serious diseases with identical sugar pills.

But this is precisely what the BBC’s Newsnight programme discovered homeopaths were doing. Broadcast in January, Pallab Ghosh exposed the disgraceful behaviour of a north London homeopath and a homeopathic ‘pharmacy’ selling sugar pills as a malaria preventative.

Watch the whole sorry exposure, even if you’ve watched it before:

As Dr Simon Singh said on the programme:

Choice is fine as long as it’s based on accurate information. And the information that’s being given out by pharmacists, by celebrities endorsing homeopathy, by the NHS offering homeopathy — the implication here that homeopathy must be effective otherwise people wouldn’t sell it, profit from it or offer it in the high street. And I am utterly shocked that we have a woman here [Zofia Dymitr, Chairwoman of the Society of Homeopaths] saying that she’s not going to forbid her members from offering homeopathic prevention of malaria to the general public. There are people coming back from tropical countries with multiple organ failure having used homeopathy and yet this woman is not prepared to stop it.

I was here four years ago when Newsnight did your last investigation and BBC Scotland have done an investigation and BBC South West have done an investigation. The BBC are the only people regulating homeopathy at the moment, because the Society itself seems to be oblivious to its responsibility.

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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.

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Is there a Doctor in the clinic?

There are a lot of doctors out there, but it can be difficult to know which are properly qualified and registered medical practitioners and who are, well, just quacks.

It’s not really that much of a problem for most of us. If we’re feeling unwell, we make an appointment with our GP. If there is any doubt about their status, you can always verify they are registered with the General Medical Council (GMC) by checking their List of Registered Medical Practitioners (LRMP).

But there are so many other ‘doctors’ out there. Ignoring The House Doctor®The Car Doctor and others who have obviously got nothing to do with health, there are many who certainly like to give the impression they are proper doctors — and I have no doubt some of them think they really are.

Take homeopaths, for example.

A simple search of the business directory yell.com shows a large number of homeopaths using the title Dr. Of course, some of them are also medically qualified and on the GMC’s LRMP, but you don’t have to look far to find examples of non-medically qualified homeopaths calling themselves Dr. Again, I have no doubt many of them think they really are doctors and some may well have qualification that entitles them to prefix their name with Dr, but no one should be in any doubt of what they are.

In the UK, Dr is not a protected title: anyone with a suitable qualification can call themselves Dr so-and-so. This is in stark contrast to, say, chiropractors, which is a protected term and its use by anyone not registered with the General Chiropractic Council is illegal under the Chiropractors Act 1994.

Things, thankfully, are a bit stricter when it comes to advertising services to the public.

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Active ingredients: still none (hopefully)

While some of us were composing our considered responses to the MHRA’s consultation on homeopathy, supporters of the magic sugar pills panicked and urged friends and homeopaths to flood the MHRA with their ill-considered responses.

This orchestrated campaign was leaked last night and gave us all a good laugh.

It was obvious the writer of the original email either hadn’t read the MHRA consultation document or was just unable to understand it and her email no doubt scared many a homeopath to write desperate emails to the named official at the MHRA. Of course, everyone is perfectly entitled to respond and make their views known. It does help, though, if you have some basic understanding of the regulatory framework and what issues the MHRA was consulting on.

The panic email contained many errors, including this gem:

The practice of homeopathy by lay homeopaths is at stake, and if the MHRA changes the wording to the document mentioned below, we will …not be allowed to practice any longer.

The originator of the email appears to be the Administrator at a ‘school’ of homeopathy, so you would have thought she might have better understood the consultation.

Her assertion is — like homeopathy — nonsense: homeopaths are not about to be stopped selling their products. The consultation is about ending the privileged position some homeopathic products were inexplicably granted 30 years ago and about the warning labels on some of them. Of course, I have no idea why homeopaths would want to maintain the status quo…

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Active ingredients: None

That’s what all homeopathic ‘medicines’ should say on their labels because that is precisely what they contain: no active ingredients.

Saying anything different is misleading the public.

For various unfathomable reasons, we have the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) regulating a non-medicine and a non-healthcare product. They don’t really even regulate homeopathic products. Not in any way that properly protects the public.

In fact, they do the opposite: they give these sugar pills and potions the legitimacy of having MHRA licence numbers — just like real medicines — and ‘Government approval’. This misleads the general public who are unaware that homeopathy isn’t some ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ system of medicine. It isn’t a system of medicine at all.

The MHRA are currently asking the public about some aspects of their regulation, including what wording should be on some homeopathic products and this is an ideal opportunity to tell them what we think.

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