Should homeopathic treatments be state funded?

Homeopathy (image by shellac, Flickr, CC)

Medical science argues that homeopathic products contain no active ingredients and are merely placebos

There’s been renewed controversy in the UK today over whether or not homeopathic treatments should be eligible for funding through the National Health Service (NHS).  As it currently stands, the government does acknowledge that there is no evidence backing the validity of such treatments; however at the same time allowing for them to be paid for through the state-backed NHS system.

The Science and Technology committee, which “exists to ensure that Government policy and decision-making are based upon solid scientific and engineering advice and evidence“, released a statement today saying that homeopathic treatments are not medicines and should no longer be able to be licensed as such nor make medical claims without backing them up with appropriate scientific evidence.

The NHS currently spends about £4 million a year supplying patients with homeopathic treatments for a variety of illnesses and ailments and includes funding for the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital.

The chairman of the committee, Phil Willis MP, stated that: “It sets an unfortunate precedent for the Department of Health to consider that the existence of a community which believes that homeopathy works is ‘evidence’ enough to continue spending public money on it”.

What lies at the core of this argument is whether or not homeopathic treatments should be considered placebos – because if they are as such, as most of the scientific and medical community would argue, then they should fall under a general government policy on how to deal with such treatments rather than have their own exceptions.  Placebo treatments have shown to be very effective in certain circumstances, but ethical problems arise from policies that involve recommending them as they inherently rely upon patient deception which is one of the main reasons why why such policies have not previously been implemented within the NHS system.

The reason why homeopathic treatments were allowed into the NHS system to begin with surrounds the desire to be more accepting of alternative medical treatments and their proponents.  Basically, it seems to come down to the need for political correctness – to never outright tell a group of people that their beliefs are wrong.  It also seems to relate to a desire to place all forms of alternative medicine into the one accepted category whilst also giving them the same level of legitimacy as accepted medical practice.

Now, I’m certainly not one to say that medicine is a perfect science and should be treated as infallible.  In fact, medicine as a discipline wouldn’t ask for such treatment.  But we need to be very clear about where we draw the line between science and other systems of belief.

Science itself has a peer-review method behind it, one that is designed to overcome errors of judgment – and even outright deception – over time.  Homeopathic treatments have not fulfilled the criteria needed, by current definition, to be labelled as part of medical science – so we seriously need to ask ourselves why it is being included under the NHS and whether or not it is appropriate.  Unfortunately, however, to question the role of homeopathic treatments in medical science is often a prelude to a passionate discussion about wide-reaching pharmaceutical conspiracy and totalitarian governments.

I expect this current statement from the Science and Technology committee to renew a lot of debate surrounding these issues, and hopefully there will be ample discussion on the many ethical situations that arise because of them.  I’ll be keeping an eye on any further developments and will let you know what happens.

In the meantime, let us know in the comments what you think about whether or not homeopathic treatments should receive government funding.  Should we see it as old-fashioned hokum?  Or should the right to have all of our belief systems be treated equally (no pun intended) cover all aspects of society without exception?

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