The war on homeopathy isn’t working. We need to call a truce

    1 March 2016

    Disclaimer: I am not a believer in homeopathy, but I am rather partial to the remedies because I love the taste.

    Having got that out of the way we can begin. Homeopathy is like Doomsday; no, I’m not talking about the end of days, but, as fans of DC comics will be aware, Superman’s most formidable foe, bred to be a perfect, indestructible killing machine, resurrected every time he dies.

    Homeopathy is pretty similar. No matter how many trials and meta-analyses are carried out, despite multiple experts opining that, to borrow scientific language, ‘it’s all a bunch of fluff’, and despite arousing the ire of the entire medical establishment en masse, homeopathy refuses to die. It remains the treatment of choice for millions of patients, sales of homeopathic remedies appear to be increasing and thousands of practitioners are registered in the UK alone, not to mention the fact that it is available on our very own NHS.

    Prominent supporters include HRH the Prince of Wales, and the Honourable Member for South West Surrey, the Secretary of State for Health. Homeopathy stimulates great emotion on both sides. Supporters all have their stories of miracles, of chronic diseases cured or relieved when allopathic medicine failed, and are usually dismissed out of hand as though they were simpletons, something that only drives patients further towards the homeopaths.

    Opponents can be especially nasty, as I discovered when I mistakenly suggested we keep an open mind on the subject, and was rewarded with sustained online abuse. The vitriol of the attack could not have been more appropriate had I suggested we start drowning little children (and kittens) at the bedside of cancer patients, whilst smearing honey on our faces and howling at the moon, instead of using chemotherapy.

    Both sides are like a warring couple in a marriage going south, with neither partner wanting to listen, in urgent need of marriage guidance counselling.

    As any unbiased and informed scientist will tell you, research is only as good as the hypothesis and the methodology used to prove or disprove that hypothesis. A badly designed study will render any results, no matter how spectacular, meaningless. It takes an expert, or at the very least someone working in a field, both to have an idea worth investigating, but also to possess the knowledge as to how to investigate that idea along universally acceptable lines.

    Given that homeopathy costs the NHS between £4 million and £12 million a year, the issue really has to be put to bed once and for all. I would suggest that prominent members of the British Homeopathic Society and relevant specialists in the medical/surgical fields call a truce, come together, and agree to settle the question definitively, to the satisfaction of all concerned.

    How? Simply subject homeopathy to several, high-quality, randomised trials as this one, with the study design carried out by homeopaths, thus rendering the argument that the trial was biased against homeopathy from the beginning obsolete, and supervised by those with training and experience in the administration of clinical trials, thus rendering the argument that the trials were methodologically weak inapplicable. Funding for these trials will not be out of the public purse but can be provided in a transparent fashion by private donors, with the results being completely accessible in the public domain in the same way the full statin trial results aren’t.

    If positive results are obtained, well and good. If not, instead of arrogantly dismissing homeopathy and by extension the millions of patients who have benefited from it, even as a placebo, medics can simply declare the debate over — and the real debate as to whether it should be accessible on the NHS can begin.