Alexander Romain on NHS sponsored homeopathy

NHS sponsored homeopathy is being financially strangled amidst the baying cries of clinicians.  In the ritualistic chanting of “placebo” and “evidence based medicine” they gleefully recapitulate the paucity of evidence underpinning this form of witchcraft.  In reality the budgetary slashes to complementary therapy is a hollow victory.  We are celebrating the starvation of a service which spends a fraction of the total NHS drug budget (0.001%) and ignore the deprivation of patients who are served by it.  Accepted, patients who indulge in this form of therapy benefit from a powerful placebo effect.  But as medics, why shouldn’t we advocate any process that makes our patients feel better?

It is argued that “false hope” is offered to patients by complementary therapies.  Or vulnerable patients are misled in to believing the advice of a charlatan over that of their clinician.  These concerns are well founded, but in fact cuts to NHS homeopathic services are more likely to compound the problem than solve it.  Patients will continue to seek complementary practitioners, but will look beyond the security of the NHS.  Members of this highly unregulated market are conceivably more disposed to misrepresent the benefits of their services.  Within the NHS the limitations of complementary therapy can atleast be earnestly described.

The clinical grudge against complementary therapies is reminiscent of the chiasm created by Darwins theory on natural selection.  Scientists ridicule the lack of factual evidence for creationism and in this respect religion and homeopathy are analogous.  Yet a freedom of information request by the Secular Medical Forum showed £35m was spent on chaplaincy services in hospitals during 2009.  That nobody has proposed to slash this budget, which exceeds the entire cost of homeopathic  care in the NHS, demonstrates gross inconsistency.

The truth of the situation is that complementary therapies are frequently a source of comfort for terminally ill people and undertaken for spiritual purposes rather than out of a misguided belief they will be cured.  Many will have non-denominational beliefs that are reflected more accurately in a spiritual healer than a priest, in taking St Johns Wort instead of reading St John.  The unique decisions made by vulnerable people should be respected and facilitated by the NHS, not preyed upon in the first round of any budget cuts.

Alexander Romain is the BMJ Clegg Scholar