Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

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Sunday, 23 July 2017

Homeopathy 'banned on the NHS' - nearly, but not quite

NHS England is updating its guidance to Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), recommending that certain items offered in primary care should no longer be prescribed. This includes homeopathy but some herbal remedies are in there too, also glucosamine + chondroitin used (ineffectively as it turns out) for osteoarthritis pain.

The document outlining the recommended changes was published on 21 July 2017 and is called Items which should not routinely be prescribed in primary care: A Consultation on guidance for CCGs. It's out for public consultation until 21 October 2017 (see pg 7 of 48 of the linked docuent on how to respond).

A. Things I want to consider in this post, the short version
1. Has homeopathy been banned from the NHS? 
No, not yet

2. Is it likely that homeopathy will be removed from the NHS?  
Seems pretty likely

3. Homeopathy costs a fraction of the total NHS costs, why do skeptics want it removed?
The evidence isn't good, also to minimise any unwarranted positive associations with healthcare

4. Are there any reasons to keep homeopathy on the NHS? 
Slightly dishonest ones

5. What's been the role of skeptics in removing homeopathy from the NHS? 
Probably helped

B. Things I want to consider in this post, the longer version
1. Has homeopathy been banned from the NHS?
Not yet. The document acknowledges that the evidence for homeopathy is poor and that homeopathy should not be prescribed, however this is a consultation document not an edict. Also this will affect England, not the whole UK.

2. Is it likely that homeopathy will be removed from the NHS?
I think so - it's widely acknowledged that it's a waste of money and there is little support for it being on the NHS. To be fair homeopathy has been declining on the NHS for two decades as this bar chart from the Nightingale Collaboration. This is more tidying up loose ends than a big new thing.

3. Homeopathy costs a fraction of the total NHS costs, why do skeptics want it removed?
While it's true that the homeopathy spend is now under £100,000 (a drop in the ocean compared with total NHS costs) it's not just about costs. We don't want money wasted on unevidenced treatments (this includes pharma drugs too), even if it is only a small amount of money. But there's also the 'halo effect': homeopathy benefits by its association with healthcare, the NHS is effectively giving its backing to nonsense. Removing it from the NHS removes this positive association. Annoyingly homeopathy also benefits from the fact that you can buy it in many highstreet pharmacists but that's a different argument.

4. Are there any reasons to keep homeopathy on the NHS?
Not good ones, no. Some doctors have argued that patients who are distressed about perceived ill-health, despite not actually being unwell, might benefit from homeopathy or placebo pills.

"TEETH" stands for "Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy".

The idea would involve doctors knowingly (or perhaps even unwittingly) giving patients inert medication with the aim of making them feel better (placebo effects, being taken seriously etc) without causing any side-effects. Another possible benefit is keeping a link with a patient who might otherwise withdraw from appropriate healthcare and explore unhelpful and costly options from quacks.

To be honest I do have some sympathy with this notion. The dishonesty troubles me - it's basically lying to a patient 'for their own good' but I can see examples of where I might go along with this (which also troubles me!).

Here a GP writes about 'heartsink' patients (where your heart sinks as what's ailing them isn't clear, nor is the solution) in an article on the Faculty of Homeopaths website. The FoH is a society of medical doctors who are also homeopaths.

"Another group of patients for which homeopathy can be helpful is those who frequently appear in GPs’ surgeries presenting with a whole host of “functional disorders”. Despite undergoing the full gamut of blood and hospital tests, no abnormality in the body is found. Nevertheless, these “heart sink” patients are clearly suffering from pain and discomfort, which is blighting their lives. This is understandably frustrating for them, for they know full well something is awry but there is no medical evidence for this.

Sometimes conventional medicines can be useful, but once again they are symptomatic treatments which may also produce unpleasant side-effects, resulting in the patient feeling even worse. Homeopathy affords me another approach in trying to help these patients. It doesn’t work for them all, but I’m frequently surprised at how many it does help."

5. What's been the role of skeptics in removing homeopathy from the NHS?
The term 'Skeptics' is generally assumed to mean activist bloggers but obviously includes people who aren't bloggers but who are also skeptical of homeopathy - including scientists, doctors and other healthcare professionals, teachers, people who've tried it but experienced no real benefit from homeopathy, members of the public, anyone.

It's difficult to prove causality. My perception is that online skeptical activism, particularly targeted at homeopathy, really got going in the early-mid 2000s, coalescing around Ben Goldacre's Bad Science colummn and blog. Obviously scientists and doctors have obviously been skeptical of homeopathy pretty much since it was invented. Prof David Colquhoun has been blogging about homeopathy since the very early 2000s and published (in a journal) a re-analysis of some homeopathy data in a paper in 1990 - I'm sure others have too, it's just we happened to have a conversation about this recently!

The focus of skeptic activism can be both narrow and targeted (for example getting something changed, eg getting an advert taken down, getting an event moved from an academic setting etc) or wider (eg contributing to people's awareness of what homeopathy actually is) and I think both feed into each other. I think of the former as 'meat' and the latter as 'marinade' and I think skeptic activism has done both very well. It seems as if articles in the press about homeopathy are much more critical and less credulous than they have been in the past - I don't know if this can be attributed to skeptics but I know that quite a few of us have contacted journalists to point to better information.

In late 2009 the UK Government announced that it was seeking examples of topics in which a science Select Committee could "assess the Government’s use of evidence in policy-making", inviting the public to suggest topics. Homeopathy was one of many, and was chosen to be the second 'evidence check' resulting in a 2010 document recommending that funding be withdrawn.

The fact that homeopathy's been included in the current consultation is also largely due to the efforts of the Good Thinking Society which has mounted legal challenges to Clinical Commissioning Groups to get them to stop funding homeopathy, as well as trying to get it blacklisted from NHS spending.

Further reading
Skeptic successes in homeopathy (originally published 24 August 2015 but regularly updated)

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Comment policy: I enthusiastically welcome corrections and I entertain polite disagreement ;) Because of the nature of this blog it attracts a LOT - 5 a day at the moment - of spam comments (I write about spam practices,misleading marketing and unevidenced quackery) and so I'm more likely to post a pasted version of your comment, removing any hyperlinks.

Comments written in ALL CAPS LOCK will be deleted and I won't publish any pro-homeopathy comments, that ship has sailed I'm afraid (it's nonsense).