A court case to force the UK's National Health Service (NHS) to pay for homeopathic “medicines” and other evidence-deficient treatments, after it announced its decision to stop funding, has been dismissed. Pro-homeopathic challengers claimed the NHS had pre-judged the decision and acted out of bias, but the court found it was reasonable for decision-makers to consider pre-existing evidence.
In 2017 the NHS attempted to discourage doctors prescribing 18 treatments it described as “ineffective, unsafe or low clinical priority”. It was anticipated this would save £141 million per year (US $189,000,000). Further savings were anticipated from recommendations against prescribing certain over the counter medications against which they are ineffective.
Prior to making these decisions, the NHS engaged in a round of consultation.
Groups objecting to the rulings, led by the British Homeopathic Association (BHA) challenged the ruling in court, claiming statements by NHS CEO Simon Stevens indicated bias. It was argued a “deliberate attempt” had been made to “unfairly influence the public” during the consultation process on the effectiveness of some of the subsequently dropped treatments.
Key to the BHA's case was a media release quoting Stevens as saying homeopathy is “At best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds”.
Mr Justice Supperstone did not make a decision on whether homeopathy works, instead ruling the NHS's processes had been sound. “I consider that NHS was entitled to form a view on the state of the evidence before going out to consultation," he said in his judgment. "It does not follow from that that NHS had closed its mind to any further evidence that might be provided by consultees or that it would not objectively assess that evidence if it were received.”
The NHS and campaigners for evidence-based medicine welcomed the decision.
The BHA was predictably unhappy.
The ruling will certainly save money, but it could also save lives. Every pound spent on a treatment that doesn't work means less for those that do. Moreover, being prescribed a fake cure often discourages people from taking something that has been shown to be effective but has side effects.
Like all health bodies, the NHS faces what can be a difficult task when assessing so-called “alternative medications” that have never been rigorously tested. There are many herbal medicines, for example, that may well work, but haven't gone through clinical trials because they are so widely available no one can make much money from selling them. Lacking that financial incentive, it can be hard to find the sponsors required to test the effectiveness properly.
Homeopathy is different, however. It has been tested again and again and has consistently failed. That's not surprising since the entire basis for homeopathy – that water has a memory – is incompatible with what we know of chemistry and physics.