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Are doctors pushing patients into the arms of homeopaths?

It’s rather astonishing that the NHS does pay for homeopathic treatment in this age of evidence-based medicine, and someone has finally had the courage to point this out to the people who hold the purse strings.

The Good Thinking Society has threatened to take Liverpool CCG to court over their decision to fund £30,000 worth of treatment with NHS funds, and the CCG have so far been forced to review their decision.

NHS homeopathic hospitals have been in decline recently, with the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital scaling back services, and both the London and Glasgow Homeopathic hospitals ditching the ‘homeopathy’ label in favour of less controversial terms – rebranding themselves as the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine and the Glasgow NHS Centre for Integrative Care respectively.

Will this latest development be the final nail in the coffin? I doubt it, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

It’s easy to ridicule homeopathy, yet I can see why it caught on when it first came on the scene in 1796. In fact, I’d go as far to say that in the 18th and 19th centuries if you were to see a doctor at all, you would have done well to see a homeopathic one.

At least they used only one medicine at a time, and a harmless one at that, while the orthodox medical intelligentsia would combine aggressive bloodletting with such enthusiastic polypharmacy that the chances are you’d end up with more toxins in your blood stream than red corpuscles before they had finished with you.

What is fascinating is that it was the over-use of harmful medicines that drove Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, to come up with his theories in the first place – ideas that have no scientific credibility in today’s eyes, but were no less crackpot in his day than many of the orthodox beliefs held at the time.

The questions we must ask ourselves are these: are we at risk of making the same mistakes as Hahnemann’s contemporaries?

Are we so over-medicalising and over-treating our patients with the harms they are subjected to from our plethora of pills, that they will flee from orthodox medicine into the welcoming arms of alternative practitioners who will take the time to listen and give them what they want?

Even more importantly, are we willing to subject our own medicine to the same scientific scrutiny that we expect homeopathy to stand up to?

Or will we continue to practice medicine which we might believe in as much as the homeopaths do, but which is equally thin on actual evidence that it works?

Put me in charge for a day and I’d throw out a number of things we do – health checks, statins in the elderly, tight glycaemic control in Type II Diabetes and treatment of mild hypertension would all be scrapped by lunchtime.

No-one is going to put me in charge, of course, but maybe someone would like to threaten to sue NHS England for the waste of tax-payers’ money on their health checks programme? Now that really would be a development.

Dr Martin Brunet is a GP in Guildford and programme director of the Guildford GPVTS. You can tweet him @DocMartin68.