The random thoughts of a sceptical activist

Homeopathy

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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Pseudo science down on the farm

I liked Yeo Valley yoghurt, particularly their vanilla one. Big pots of the stuff didn’t last long.

They are organic, but this isn’t why I used to buy it. I just liked the rich, creamy taste.

Yes, I used to buy it.

On Twitter yesterday, @GhostOMichael, a follower of @RhysMorgan, tweeted a link to a page on Yeo Valley’s website (cached) that I found worrying: it told how Yeo Valley ‘treat’ their cows with homeopathy. (That page has disappeared and has been replaced with this one. Thanks to Jaxxson for pointing it out.)

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NHS Tayside want to employ a new doctor

Very laudable indeed, particularly in these economically tough times — we all need to tighten our belts (so we’re told). But there are sick people out there needing healed.

But this isn’t just any doctor. They want a specialty doctor. A specialty doctor in homeopathy, no less.

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My local NHS Trust and AltMed

Ever anxious to ensure the taxpayer isn’t paying for bogus therapies, I though it was about time I asked my local NHS trust.

I duly sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the North West London Hospitals NHS Trust. I wanted to get a comprehensive understanding of what AltMed therapies they indulged in. Their responses are in italics:

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Standing up for science and evidence

Science and evidence frequently have a hard time surviving in the seat of our democracy, but it seems it is going to become even more difficult in this new session, particularly where health is concerned.

David Tredinnick (Conservative, Bosworth) — he of astrology software expenses fame — put down four Early Day Motions about homeopathy a few days ago. They are unbelievably ignorant of science and Julian Huppert (LibDem, Cambridge) tabled amendments to correct Tredinnick’s misaprehensions and misunderstandings.

EDMs don’t really change much, but it is sometimes important to put a marker down. And, given Tredinnick’s and Nadine Dorries‘ recent appointments to the Health Select Committee, this is even more important. So I have just emailed my MP, Barry Gardiner, urging him to support Julian’s amendments:

Barry

We strongly urge you to support Julian Huppert’s amendments to EDM 284, 285, 286 and 287 originally laid by David Tredinnick. We hope we don’t have to explain the woolly thinking and utter disregard for evidence that is embedded in the original motions.

Julian’s amendments correct that nonsense: it is important that a marker is put down that Parliament will not support such ignorant notions and that it is made clear that homeopathy is dangerous pseudo scientific quackery.

With the astonishing appointment of David Tredinnick and Nadine Dorries to the Health Select Committee, we can see many battles looming ahead and we need to ensure that health decisions and funding are based on facts, not fantasy.

Two articles in today’s Guardian are worth reading if you are not familiar with Tredinnick and Dorries’ views on science:

Conservatives put Dumb and Dumber on the Health Select Committee by Martin Robbins

Health select committee lunacy by Adam Rutherford

We look forward to receiving your reply and your support

Thanks and best regards.

I’ll post any reply I get and urge others to write to their MPs asking them to stand up for science and evidence.

The respectable face of homeopathy?

The dichotomy must tear some homeopaths apart. They eschew conventional medicine — particularly the link to the ruthless and profit-mongering Big Pharma with all their toxic concoctions — yet they crave the respectability, fame and fortune of mainstream medicine. And in their quest, they seem to have no scruples and even mimic their enemies.

But then there’s the problem of homeopathy not being amenable to randomised controlled trials (apparently), yet they keep citing ‘trials’ published in their own comics. That might fool the layman into thinking there is a good evidence base for the efficacy of their sugar potions, but it fools no one who has even a jot of knowledge of science.

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