Why does the NHS waste your money on homeopathy?

One of the things we come up against most often as psychiatrists is claims that different remedies help in anxiety, stress and mood disorders. We also encounter it very frequently in children with autism and other developmental or learning problems.

One of the most frequent ones is homeopathy. I tend to feel pretty mean when I have to set the record straight with a patient that consults with me on these remedies, some times after wasting quite a bit of money on them. Let's be clear homeopathy doesn't work, it has been proven to be no better than giving placebos and there is no possible way it can work.

Homeopathy is based on an idea of Samuel Hahnemann in the 18th Century that substances which cause symptoms in healthy people could be used to 'cure' sick people with the same symptoms. This is nonsense, but it gets worse; you have to dilute the substance repeatedly and shake it. In fact the substance is diluted so much there are no molecules of the substance left. On the upside this at least means the homeopathic preparations are not likely to harm you except via pain in your wallet. It can also be harmful if you use homeopathy for a serious condition and that stops you for using proper treatment for it.

OK, I know lots of people believe in it and, via our old friend the placebo effect, they probably do get some benefit. Yep, it's a free country and as I've said before, I waste money too.

In the UK we have a publicly funded health system (the National Health Service), which given the current financial crisis is a bit under pressure. The NHS has to take a view on what it can afford and has to make tough decisions. Sensibly they want to fund well evidenced treatments. There is even an institution, called the National Institute of Clinical Exellence (NICE) which reviews all the evidence for treatments and makes recommendations on which treatments are the most effective for the least money. Unsurprisingly the NHS's take on homeopathy is:

"A 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy said that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos, and that the principles on which homeopathy is based are 'scientifically implausible'. This is also the view of the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies."

However it seems this view isn't shared by everyone, for reasons that escape me the NHS in Bristol seem happy to put on their website: 

"Homeopathy is useful in the management of:

  • Rheumatology
  • Allergic conditions
  • Asthma
  • Eczema and other dermatology conditions
  • Menstrual and menopausal problems
  • Digestive and bowel problems
  • Stress and mood disorders"

Well no it isn't as far as I am aware except in the sense that drinking water is generally a good idea whether you are ill or not.

As a psychiatrist I know well enough about uncertainty in medicine, but this isn't such an area: we know with complete certainty it doesn't work. I await the NHS Trust's response to my email asking them what these claims are based on with interest.


 A 15C dilution of "Marsh Tea" or as we doctors call it Water, useful for one condition: "being thirsty".

A 15C dilution of "Marsh Tea" or as we doctors call it Water, useful for one condition: "being thirsty".