Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Witchhunt on Homeopathy


Attacks on Homeopathy

Ever since it inception in 1810, homeopathic medicine has endured periods where it has been ridiculed, insulted and generally lambasted. Such periods tend to alternate with times in which it enjoys widespread support. At the moment it is enduring a sustained attack in the media generally supported by eminent scientists whose rhetoric treats homeopathy’s practitioners and supporters with total contempt. The question that needs to be asked is:Why is this happening now?

Determinism, Mechanism, Dawkins and God

This is no place to have a discussion about philosophy of science. Suffice to say that we (in the West) live in a time of determinism, mechanistic thinking and naïve realism in which anything intangible or occult, those things that cannot be touched or seen, are said not to exist. Those who believe in such phenomena are fair game for attack. Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion is one of the attackers. What is remarkable about Dawkins is simply why he thinks he is saying anything new. Believers in things that cannot be grasped by the senses have always been attacked – at least going back to the Enlightenment. Having pronounced his judgment on God, Dawkins goes on to attack homeopathy. As a homeopathic physician, all I can say is that at least we are in good company!

The Enlightenment and its Critics

In my view the Enlightenment was enlightening but not that enlightening. Criticism of many aspects of it appears in many parts of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. People like Dawkins would have found themselves satirically attacked by Swift. Alas we have no Swift today, no John Kennedy Toole, no Bill Hicks and particularly no Lenny Bruce to say that everywhere ‘people are leaving the temples and returning to God’.

The Professors that hit below the belt

So in this time of naïve realism, a gang of mainly retired doctors have decided to mount a new form of attack on homeopathy. In a letter to Patient Care Trusts (PCTs) they pompously dismissed homeopathy and urged all PCTs to prevent GPs in their areas from referring patients to medical qualified homeopathic doctors working at NHS homeopathic hospitals. In other words they urged bureaucratic non-doctors in positions of power to prevent doctors referring patients to other doctors! This is the pernicious point that none of the media coverage picked up on. Baum, Ernst, Tallis and fellow enlightened luminaries are entitled to their opinion. They are entitled to form an organisation to perpetrate their view. But in my opinion to seek to influence non-medical bureaucracy to prevent doctors referring patients to other doctors is a cynical, pernicious and underhand exploitation of one of the worst aspects of the ‘nanny state.’ This position taken by these eminent professors generated a media storm in which newspapers such as The Guardian (in particular articles by the ranting radical rationalist, Ben Goldacre) seemed to delight in giving space to. But why do I use the word pernicious? Because there was an honourable course of action that could have been taken by these professorial doctors and scientists that would have been more academically honest. They could have written to every GP in the country and exhorted them not to support homeopathy in any way. The could have written a joint article in the British Medical Journal or any journal read by doctors with the same message. But I think they feared that doctors would still ‘irrationally’ support homeopathy by sending patients to other homeopathic doctors. So they had to go above the heads of GPs and try to win the battle at a bureaucratic level instead. This in my view was underhand and pernicious and nobody seems to have picked up on this.

The Truth about Homeopathy and NHS Homeopathic Hospitals

The simple fact is that since 1948 when homeopathic hospitals in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Tonbridge Wells and Bristol chose to become part of the NHS, hundreds of thousands of patients have been help by going to those hospitals. Many of these patients are ‘difficult cases’ that have not been able to be helped by conventional medicine. How exactly they were helped may or may not be a moot point, but to claim as the government ‘advisor’ Sir David King claimed that homeopathy was of no medical use whatsoever and that it even put lives at risk. Such a comment of complete balderdash is unworthy of a knight, never mind a top scientist. Even homeopathy’s worst enemies do not claim that it is completely ineffective. They claim that it works by the placebo effect or suggestion, that homeopathic doctors get results because of their superior bedside manner or that they give patients more time. Why non-homeopathic doctors are unable to get similar results simply by ‘talking to patients’ remains a mystery. And if they say they haven’t got time to talk to patients and help them get better by doing so – then this is a tragedy for both patients and doctors. Analyses of trials of homeopathic medicines remain controversial. My personal opinion is that most meta-analyses show that homeopathic medicines do work over and above the placebo effect but nobody can doubt that patients benefit from seeing homeopathic doctors.

A significant minority of taxpayers want homeopathy to be available on the NHS. Over 200 MPs have signed an early day motion on their behalf. But the witchhunt continues. Let us hope that good old British common sense prevails here and homeopathy remains available on the NHS for those who want it. Patients who feel better after receiving homeopathic treatment are like any other patients who feel better after medical attention. Whether Sir David King or any of the enlightened professors who wrote to every PCT in the country understand exactly how these patients got better is simply not the point.

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