The Future of Homeopathy in the UK

After several decades of increasing popularity, the homeopathic community is finding itself under growing pressure. There is an increasing level of criticism of the practice coming from many quarters, including Richard Dawkins recent Channel 4 programme, lots of bloggers and academics too.

Importantly, homeopathy is not being seen as as benign as its adherents’ propaganda suggests and that there are real dangers in the belief in magic water and sugar pills. It’s not all bad news for homeopaths, there is unexpected support in some quarters. So, why is there so much pressure on them at the moment and where will this leave the homeopaths in the UK? More importantly, what should homeopaths being doing if they want to survive in any meaningful and respected way?

To make an attempt at answering this question, we need to understand a little history of homeopathy in the UK. The man considered responsible for introducing homeopathy into Britain was a Dr F H F Quin. He first starting touting his remedies in the 1830’s, and being of aristocratic origin, his patients were the upper classes and nobility of British Society. He was keen to keep homeopathy within the medical profession and with the high paying aristocracy.

Another strand of homeopaths emerged in the wake of the ever increasing regulation and scientific nature of the medical profession. Lay homeopaths started emerging in the later half of the 19th century. These practitioners were not medical qualified and were from the start associated with more radical approaches to homeopathy. Despite offering their services to the lower echelons of society, radical lay homeopathy found it difficult to gain a foothold and homeopathy never really achieved mass popularity like it did in other countries.

The twentieth century saw the reversal of this picture with medical homeopaths in decline and lay homeopaths in ascendancy. The vestigial remnants of institutional medical homeopathy are now mainly centred within a few remaining homeopathic hospitals, and interestingly, they still have their aristocratic ties. Dr Peter Fisher of the London Homeopathic Hospital is proud to be called the Queen’s physician. Homeopaths see this as a big stamp of approval for their quackery, although the HRH support says more about our royals than about the efficacy of homeopathy. When did we last see a Prince of the Realm educated in a science subject at university? We are much more likely to see them being trained in history, agriculture and how to kill foreigners.

But of course, the shocking thing is that homeopathy and these hospitals are funded by the NHS. It is a bit like finding a room in the cellars of a modern city hospital that still had working tanks for breeding leeches. This ghost of Victorian patriarchal medical quackery lurking within a modern public health service is of course an absurdity, and this is increasingly being pointed out both by senior academics and medics and the hospital managers who want to spend their limited budgets as wisely as possible. Medical homeopaths recognise the threat and are trying to campaign to save their funding. Even with their attempts to court members of parliament, it would look likely that those tasked with spending NHS money will make medical homeopathy an interesting modern historical anomaly. NHS Homeopathic hospitals are doomed by the simple asymmetry of their position. Stopping funding and closing hospitals is a fairly easy decision to make. Arguing for increased homeopathic provisioning and opening new hospitals looks almost impossible in today’s climate. Would you want to argue for massive increased funding of contentious, unproven quackery in front of parliament? No, medical homeopathy will dwindle and die and be left with just a few GPs dabbling on the side.

That leaves the question of the future of lay homeopathy. Although somewhat antagonistic towards each other, lay homeopaths depend on their dwindling medically trained colleagues for a certain amount of credibility. However, lays have their own set of problems and these are mostly self-inflicted. Lays prefer to be called Professional Homeopaths as this gives them the appearance of, err, professionalism. However, their central problem is that they lack any sort of professional ethos whatsoever. Medical homeopaths are registered mainly with the Faculty of Homeopathy. However, they are ultimately accountable to their medical colleagues and can suffer severe penalty if they transcend their medical codes. Lay homeopaths are under no such sanction. This would explain the different attitudes of Dr Peter Fisher and his lay colleagues to the treatment of malaria with homeopathic pills. Fisher condemns the practice in the strongest terms whilst the Society of Homeopaths take absolutely no action to take their members to task over the widespread practice.

One could predict that without the constraints of either legislation, professional sanction or a commitment to rational enquiry that lay homeopaths will go off the deep end with ever increasing absurdity in their delusions. And that is just what we see. Not content with trying to treat a few headaches and grazed knees, their healing fantasies spread across the medical spectrum. Homeopaths take great pride in their work in ‘helping’ Africans with malaria or HIV. They proudly set themselves up as real alternatives to the medical profession and will tell their patients that. They splinter into factions with some saying that the only true homeopathy is that set out by Hahnemann whilst others take on more radical and ‘progressive’ approaches. Ever more ‘inventive’ remedies are produced from weird substances like hyena saliva, bewick swan and stone circles. Some are totally unconstrained and start believing they can make homeopathic mp3 files. Despite the various organisations that represent lay homeopaths expressly forbidding practices like these, no action ever appears to be taken. Homeopathic solidarity appears to be more important than constraining their members’ out of control actions.

Of course, there is debate about these issues between homeopaths. One remedy at a time? Or multiple remedies? But having rejected the normal standards of scientific evidence and methodology that would normally settle such medical disputes, there are no ways of reaching consensus and so the community settles into its little-enders and big-enders groupings. Science has to be rejected as when it is used it consistently shows all homeopathic flavours to be equally as deluded. There is equivalence in all homeopathic delusions. And without a rational approach and mindset, homeopaths are free to drift off into deep and dangerous nonsense, best exemplified by the recent scandals of their advocacy of treatment of malaria and AIDS. This is not fringe behaviour. The Society of Homeopaths, the biggest register of lay homeopaths in the UK, is holding a symposium in London in December on the treatment of AIDS with homeopathy.

Criticism of homeopaths is widely seen as a conspiracy of vested interests and pharmaceutical company evil that is ‘frightened of alternatives to their money making obsessions’. This is, of course, nonsense. Critics are just deeply concerned about the behaviour and consequences of the purveyors of unfettered nonsense setting themselves out to have healing responsibilities. This handy ready-made excuse of ‘Big Pharma’ prevents homeopaths having to think critically about what their detractors are saying. Few engage with the outside world and try to tackle their genuine concerns in a meaningful way.

There is, however, widespread recognition that they do need to get their house in order. There does need to be the appearance of a professional set of people able to look after their own affairs. Looking at other alternative medical practices, and seeing external regulatory pressures being put on them, homeopaths fear the consequences of either UK or European pressure to sort themselves out or restrict their activities. There has been a recent attempt to create a body that will oversee a single register of homeopaths as the first step towards a unitary self-regulatory body. However, the newly created body, CORH, recently collapsed with unpaid debts after some of the member bodies refused to pay dues and after widespread squabbling about what exactly homeopathy was. A new body is feebly trying to raise out of the CORH ashes, but the question of funding such a register is still undecided.

Regulation and legislation under the Blair Woo government has been lax and sometimes favourable. By giving fake pill manufacturers like Nelson’s the ability to sell sugar pills as treatments for named conditions like hayfever and teething pains, homeopathy certainly gained some credibility and some profits for companies like Boots. This is unlikely to be maintained or strengthened under less ‘new age’ governments and after the torrent of criticism directed at the MRHA on the issue.

Attitudes of both the public and regulatory bodies tends to be fairly neutral towards homeopathy. It is seen incorrectly as a form of herbal medicine by some, or a benign nonsense by others and so not worth wasting effort on. Homeopathy rather slips under the radar and is not seen as something that can cause harm. What direct harm is done appears to be exported to developing nations with huge health care problems. Pretending you can cure AIDS with magic water will, of course, kill people. But it is tolerated in the UK by a society that likes the anti-establishment nature of it and the supposed self-empowerment. Jeanette Winterson writes in the Times about her first publisher, Philipa Brewster’s attempts to export murderous delusion to Botswana without a hint of the controversy that such an action deserves.

Whether renewed UK or EU regulatory bodies wake up and take notice of homeopaths in the same way that they are curbing the excesses of vitamin pill sellers remains to be seen. What would be far preferable would be to see homeopaths take control of their own profession and reform it in meaningful ways. I must say that I see this as most unlikely as I cannot identify any leadership that could unite the majority of practitioners and take them towards a new vision. The depths of delusion, the resistance to criticism and the distrust of the wider medical community make my hopes rather futile.

But what sort of reform would be required? Well, there are perhaps a couple of levels of reform that could be made:

The first step would be to embrace the data. Just as the medical profession have spent the last five decades relinquishing their personal authority to the democratic pool of scientific evidence, so too homeopaths need to recognise that what they do is indistinguishable from providing placebos. That is what the data says, consistently. If homeopaths were to practice within the boundaries of that knowledge then almost all criticism would vanish overnight. Of course, homeopaths would have to start to understand placebos and let go of their more mystical notions of self-healing. Placebos have limits. Many complaints, and especially serious conditions, are not placebo responsive and so there would be no more dangerous nonsense about treating cancer, malaria or AIDS. Homeopathy could happily survive in a limited form if this was taken on board. At best, homeopaths could offer a lay complementary therapy alongside real medicine. At worse, it would be no different from any cranky new age crystal healer or aromatherapist. Maybe it would be just a bit of tolerated nuttiness.

The second and bigger step would be to fully recognise that the benefit that homeopaths give to their clients is all in the consultation. They are counsellors. Recognising this would mean abandoning the mumbo-jumbo of ‘like-cures-like’ and their crazy dilution/succussion rubbish. The homeopathic community represents a huge pool of people who are good at listening to people with health problems in a way that the GP cannot. Developing these skills, retraining and finding a way to integrate and exploit this pool would undoubtedly provide real complementary medical service within the UK, and almost certainly deserving of NHS funding.

They might not call themselves homeopaths anymore, but our society would benefit from a more rounded, effective, rational, caring, and, dare I say, holistic approach to health care.

And then pigs might fly.

23 Comments on The Future of Homeopathy in the UK

  1. Dear CN,
    More good stuff, with which I am in full agreement. However, you have been just a little sloppy in using leeches as a metaphor for out-moded medicine. The use of leeches actually returned in the 1980’s (‘hirudotherapy’), as a direct result of the rise of microsurgery. One of the major problems that can arise post-op is local venous insufficiency, which can if untreated lead to local arterial thrombosis and tissue death. Putting leeches on the site is a cost-effective way of relieving congestion and restoring local blood flow. And, leech’s microflora produce peptide antibiotics which appear to provide some anti-infection cover too.
    Keep up the good work!

    Paul Clayton

  2. The truth is that Homoeopathy is not under pressure but the modern medicine sysytem is under pressure due to the world wide growing popularity of Homoeopathy. That’s why instead of propagaitng what is good in their system and trying to retain its clients the route they have adopted is to criticise Homoeopathy as unscientific, placebo system etc. etc.
    But the public can not fooled by such motivated criticisms by some pseudo scientists who know nothing about the experience of a patient under Homoeopathy. Let us pity their ignorance…

  3. Are you sure that all homeopaths are gifted listeners/counsellors? Would you really care to have advice/a view of history/a framework for philosophical relevance foisted on you by STYH?

  4. Well, I wouldn’t say gifted, but I would say that amongst the pool of homeopaths there must be people who are good at showing empathy and have some reasonable listening skills. (Even if those listening skills are never used on their critics).

    To be clear, the above post is just a tiny tongue in cheek thought experiment. I believe that the vast majority of homeopaths are too wedded to their healing delusions to let go and really examine what they are doing. There is a big ego thing that allows homeopaths to place their personal world view above all forms of objectivity. That is why I end the post as I do.

  5. Hi Dan,

    The trite answer is ‘they would day that’. If homeopaths do not like the conclusions of the paper then they should publish their own analysis for critical review. But they do not.

    More specifically, the heart of their complaint is that the meta-analyses of placebo-based trials are inappropriate for homeopathy. This is largely nonsense. It is perfectly possible to do all the homeopathic things like individualisation of treatments and still blind the trial. This is just a canard that homeopaths trot out when they do not like the result of a properly conducted trial. And made more obvious by their quickness to flaunt any old trial that does show some small effect for homeopathy.

    It is a sad state of affairs when, despite all the bold and proud claims of homeopaths, they are unable to produce a strong body of work that supports them. Rather, they sit in the sidelines and issue press releases that snipe at the work of others.

  6. its very simple really
    one, its about money,this is a typicl reaction by drug companies their robots,and insensitive,braindead fools who hav’nt got a clue :))

    Two,surely its about life and being alive,how many people have been killed by homoeopathy,,according to statistics
    very few,now ask your self,can medical science claim the same,i dont think so,,,often medics fear their own treatent eg

    “What is lost in the unemotional statistic of 500,000 cancer deaths per year is how those people died. Dr. Whitaker goes on to say more about the treatment of cancer: In my opinion, conventional cancer therapy is so toxic and dehumanizing that I fear it far more than I fear death from cancer. We know that conventional therapy doesn’t work — if it did, you would not fear cancer any more than you fear pneumonia. It is the utter lack of certainty as to the outcome of conventional treatment that virtually screams for more freedom of choice in the area of cancer therapy. Yet most so-called alternative therapies regardless of potential or proven benefit, are outlawed, which forces patients to submit to the failures that we know don’t work, because there’s no other choice.”

    two cancer survivors,who used so called quackery

  7. Quote: “a bit like finding a room in the cellars of a modern city hospital that still had working tanks for breeding leeches.”

    1 The leech that has made suckers out of scientists The Times 11th April 2007 page 27

    …you were saying????

    I’ve given up trying to argue that and why homeopathy works – the studies are out there, and anyone who cares to look without blinkers will see it.

  8. just show me one hospital or doctor in the UK that regularly prescribes a good leaching for anything. Don’t be so daft ‘anonymous’. Your attempts to ‘argue that and why homeopathy works’ have failed undoubtedly because they are rubbish arguments, whoever you are.

  9. Cindy Crawford on Oprah’s show: we are VERY pleased that Cindy Crawford chose to HIGHLIGHT the fact that she calls herself a “big fan of homeopathy” and that she uses it totreat a wide variety of ailments of her children and her animals. This is fabulous…and it adds just one more person who is smart and successful and
    who could choose to use ANY form of healing…but SHE chooses
    HOMEOPATHY.. .with good reason. The bottomline is that she emphasized that she doesn’t leave home with her homeopathic medicines. Fab again.

  10. A well written article. Which doesn’t mean that it is right.

    If homeopathy is so bad, and if homeopaths are such quacks, why is it that homeopathy has worked for millions upon millions of people worldwide? And why are supporters of western medicine/science so fearful of homeopathy?

    You just need to look at “traditional” science, including medicine, to see hundreds of instances of things which are regarded as “good” which cannot be explained or justified. In other words, they are not fully understood, yet people are OK with them.

    So given that:
    – homeopathy works for so many people
    – but can’t necesarily be explained in scientific terms

    … does that mean that homeopathy is wrong?

    A VERY one sided article. But I suppose you’ve got nothing to write about if you’re not one sided!

    Yours etc
    A long standing user of homeopathy. It’s worked for me!

  11. – homeopathy works for so many people

    Prove it. No homeopath can. They cannot rule out that people would have gotten better anyway, that a placebo effect kicked in, that it was wishful thinking, or even their real medicine that was working. Prove it was none of these things and you have a case.

    – but can’t necessarily be explained in scientific terms

    Science does not have to explain an effect that has been demonstrated! Until homeopathy can reliably demonstrate a test, science has nothing to explain.

    It can explain why people believe it works. Such delusions are common.

    If someone could pass my simple challenge, then science may have something to explain. Are you up for it, or too unsure of your beliefs?

  12. “Just as the medical profession have spent the last five decades relinquishing their personal authority to the democratic pool of scientific evidence”

    Er … what pool would that be?

  13. “How does ordinary medicine prove it is not placebo?”

    Are you serious? Or are you a troll?

    In either case, I will leave the question as an exercise for the reader.

  14. — “How does ordinary medicine prove it is not placebo?”
    Are you serious? Or are you a troll? —

    I don’t know what a troll is in this context, but I am interested in this question being answered with the other one:
    And how does that work in scientific terms?

    If they were such easy questions, it should not take a moment to answer them. But I don’t think they are easy, do you?

  15. While browsing your site I stumbled on an old comment of mine, and now know I was incorrect in describing the leech’s microflora as providing potentially useful antibiotic cover. My theoretical argument is clearly subsumed by the clinical reality; which is that infections can be caused by leeching after microsurgery. (ie Kalbermatten et al ’07)
    Mea culpa.

  16. There is emerging evidence for how homeopathy works, and it can be explained by quantum physics. it is however quite comlicated.
    I know by experience that it works for me. It also worked for my baby when she was 2 weeks old, and it also has great results with animals. How can it be a placebo for an animal or baby?
    The placebo effect is another discussion altogether, and a very interesting one! Rather than being ignored as a funny side effect of giving people pretend dugs, we shoudl investigate how we can harness the power of the mind to heal ourselves!

  17. Elin. If you believe that quantum physics has anything to do with homeopathy then you have been fooled. Quantum theory has nothing to say abouyt it – it describes how microscopic fundamental particles interact and has nothing to say about macroscopic objects like people and pills. If you think it does, the please supply references.

    And as for babies and animals – the placebo effect is not necessary to explain peoples’ delusions here. Babies and animals can just get better on their own, or parents and owners can be fooled into thinking they are better when they are not.

  18. What a load of medieval trash. Anyone who runs down homeopathy obviously knows nothing about it.
    However I know alot about conventional medicine – how they told me my father was going to die overnight from a bowel obstruction that he refused to be operated on (thank god he knew more than the so called doctors), when it was in fact a blood clot on the brain (thought basic anatomy was part of a medical degree??), and he is now alive four years later. Have also heard plenty of stories over the years about people dying from operations, wrong medicines etc etc but none from a homeopathic cure? Also conventional medicine has yet to come up with a surefire cure for cancer which doesn’t include pumping chemicals through your body for weeks on end in the last ditch hope that it works, when really if people followed homeopathy, stopped smoking and using and consuming chemicals and all sorts of rubbish, and looked after themselves better they might have a fighting chance. Shall I go on??? PS I am extremely intelligent and know what I am talking about.

  19. Kavirajwel le canard is a duck, really,
    hear him go: quack quack quack.
    Real quackery is regular medicine that has to change their drugs every few months because it proves to be too dangerous – scientific they call it. Homoeopathy has used the same medicines for 200 years with great success – no need to change good medicine.
    Now that is truly scientific.
    If homoeopathy is humbug, explain why vaccination is based on the like is cured or prevented by like and is scientific.
    So are all modern allergy treatments.
    You just steal our ideas and then claim you found them yourself – Plagiarism it is called.

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