Ministers in the U.K. are considering banning homeopathy from the treatments that can be prescribed by doctors working for the National Health Service (NHS). At the moment, the NHS spends £4 million ($6 million) on homeopathic prescriptions and hospitals every year. But a consultation will be held next year to consider blacklisting it.
The move comes after the Good Thinking Society, which campaigned to add homeopathy to the NHS blacklist, threatened to take their case to court. The blacklist, also known as Schedule 1, already bans the prescription of over 3,000 products including herbal remedies, sun lotion, and wine.
"Given the finite resources of the NHS, any spending on homeopathy is utterly unjustifiable. The money spent on these disproven remedies can be far better spent on treatments that offer real benefits to patients," Simon Singh, founder of the Good Thinking Society, said in a statement. Both the British Medical Association and the UK Chief Scientific Advisor have expressed the same position.
Drugs can be blacklisted by the NHS if they are not effective or if cheaper alternatives become available. According to the NHS itself: "There is no good-quality evidence that homeopathy is effective as a treatment for any health condition."
Homeopathy is based on the principle that water can maintain the memory of the substances that have touched it. It is a 200-year-old technique in which an active ingredient is mixed with 99 parts of water, and this is repeated either six times or 30 times. The dilution for six cycles makes the active ingredient one part per million, and at 30 cycles the dilution is one molecule of active ingredient every 1,000 billion billion billion molecules of water. The solution is then mixed with sugar and turned into a pill or tablet. In Britain, homeopathic tablets and other products cost around £4 to £10 ($6 to $15), although the production cost per pill is significantly less than a penny.
Dangerous lies have been spread about homeopathy, even that it could be used to cure cancer. An often repeated unsubstantiated claim is that homeopathy works on animals, but the evidence points to the opposite.
The positive effects from homeopathy come exclusively from the placebo effect, a physiological response to a harmless substance that leads to a reduction in symptoms from an ailment. Studies have shown that placebos are effective in nausea and pain management but do not have any other clinically important consequences.
Ignorance is not a fundamental tenant of experiencing the placebo effect, though. There have been investigations in the use of “open-label” placebos (where patients knew they were getting a placebo) with some positive results.
Another issue with homeopathy is that the patients are not informed of what homeopathy is and how the placebo effect works. In 2012, the UK Science and Technology Committee addressed the ethics of it.
“In the Committee’s view, homeopathy is a placebo treatment and the Government should have a policy on prescribing placebos,” the Committee said. “The Government is reluctant to address the appropriateness and ethics of prescribing placebos to patients, which usually relies on some degree of patient deception. Prescribing of placebos is not consistent with informed patient choice. [...] Their effect is unreliable and unpredictable and cannot form the sole basis of any treatment on the NHS.”
The consultation to consider banning homeopathy is taking place in 2016, but even if homeopathic products are blacklisted by the NHS, they will still be available to purchase privately.