British Parliament Report Calls for End of
Homeopathic Funding and Product Licensing

Stephen Barrett, M.D.


In February 2010 the British House of Commons Technology Committee issued a 275-page Evidence Check which it recommended that the National Health Service (NHS) stop paying for homeopathic treatment and that the Medicines and Healthcare regulatory Agency (MHRA) stop licensing homeopathic products. The Committee'overall conclusion stated:

By providing homeopathy on the NHS and allowing MHRA licensing of products which subsequently appear on pharmacy shelves, the Government runs the risk of endorsing homeopathy as an efficacious system of medicine. To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products.

The component conclusions and recommendations are shown below.


Conclusions and Recommendations

The policy on NHS funding and provision of homeopathy

1. We recommend that the Government determine the total amount of money spent by the NHS on homeopathy annually over the past 10 years, differentiating homeopathic products, patient referrals and maintenance and refurbishment of homeopathic hospitals, and publish the figures. (Paragraph 15)

Our expectations of the evidence base

2. We consider that conclusions about the evidence on the efficacy of homeopathy should be derived from well designed and rigorous randomised controlled trials (RCTs). (Paragraph 20)

3. We expect the conclusions on the evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy to give particular weight to properly conducted meta-analyses and systematic reviews of RCTs. (Paragraph 25)

4. We have set out the issue of efficacy and effectiveness at some length to illustrate that a non-efficacious medicine might, in some situations, be effective (patients feel better) because of the placebo effect. That is why we put more weight on evidence of efficacy than of effectiveness. (Paragraph 39)

5. We would expect the Government to have a proper understanding of the power and complexities of the placebo effect and the ethical issues surrounding its use in a clinical setting; otherwise it cannot hope to make good decisions relating to patients and public health. (Paragraph 40)

6. Our expectations of the evidence base relevant to government policies on the provision of homeopathy are straightforward. We would expect the Government to have a view on the efficacy of homeopathy so as to inform its policy on the NHS funding and provision of homeopathy. Such a view should be based on the best available evidence, that is, rigorous randomised controlled trials and meta-analyses and systematic reviews of RCTs. If the effects of homeopathy can be primarily attributed to the placebo effect, we would expect the Government to have a view on the ethics of prescribing placebos. (Paragraph 47)

The evidence check: NHS funding and provision

7. We conclude that the principle of like-cures-like is theoretically weak. It fails to provide a credible physiological mode of action for homeopathic products. We note that this is the settled view of medical science. (Paragraph 54)

8. We consider the notion that ultra-dilutions can maintain an imprint of substances previously dissolved in them to be scientifically implausible. (Paragraph 61)

9. Research funding is limited and highly competitive. The Government should continue its policy of funding the highest quality applications for important scientific research determined on the basis of peer review. (Paragraph 63)

10. We recommend that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Professor Harper, Chief Scientist at the DH, get together to see if they can reach an agreed position on the question of whether there is any merit in research funding being directed towards the claimed modes of action of homeopathy. (Paragraph 64)

11. In our view, the systematic reviews and meta-analyses conclusively demonstrate that homeopathic products perform no better than placebos. (Paragraph 70)

12. We recommend that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Professor Harper get together to see if they can reach an agreed position on the question of whether there is any good evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy and whether there is a genuine scientific controversy over the efficacy of homeopathy and publish this. (Paragraph 72)

13. We regret that advocates of homeopathy, including in their submissions to our inquiry, choose to rely on, and promulgate, selective approaches to the treatment of the evidence base as this risks confusing or misleading the public, the media and policy-makers. (Paragraph 73)

14. There has been enough testing of homeopathy and plenty of evidence showing that it is not efficacious. Competition for research funding is fierce and we cannot see how further research on the efficacy of homeopathy is justified in the face of competing priorities. (Paragraph 77)

15. It is also unethical to enter patients into trials to answer questions that have been settled already. Given the different position on this important question between the Minister and his Chief Scientist, we recommend that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington, investigate whether ministers are receiving effective advice and publish his own advice on this question. (Paragraph 78)

16. We do not doubt that homeopathy makes some patients feel better. However, patient satisfaction can occur through a placebo effect alone and therefore does not prove the efficacy of homeopathic interventions. (Paragraph 82)

17. We recommend that the Department of Health circulate NHS West Kent’s review of the commissioning of homeopathy to those PCTs with homeopathic hospitals within their areas. It should recommend that they also conduct reviews as a matter of urgency, to determine whether spending money on homeopathy is cost effective in the context of competing priorities. (Paragraph 86)

Should NICE evaluate homeopathy?

18. We accept that NICE has a large queue of drugs to evaluate and that it may have greater priorities than evaluating homeopathy. However, we cannot understand why the lack of an evidence base for homeopathy might prevent NICE evaluating it but not prevent the NHS spending money on it. This position is not logical. (Paragraph 90)

Homeopathy on the NHS

19. When doctors prescribe placebos, they risk damaging the trust that exists between them and their patients. (Paragraph 97)

20. For patient choice to be real choice, patients must be adequately informed to understand the implications of treatments. For homeopathy this would certainly require an explanation that homeopathy is a placebo. When this is not done, patient choice is meaningless. When it is done, the effectiveness of the placebo—that is, homeopathy—may be diminished. We argue that the provision of homeopathy on the NHS, in effect, diminishes, not increases, informed patient choice. (Paragraph 101)

21. We recommend that if personal health budgets proceed beyond the pilot stage the Government should not allow patients to buy non-evidence-based treatments such as homeopathy with public money. (Paragraph 104)

22. When the NHS funds homeopathy, it endorses it. Since the NHS Constitution explicitly gives people the right to expect that decisions on the funding of drugs and treatments are made “following a proper consideration of the evidence”, patients may reasonably form the view that homeopathy is an evidence-based treatment. (Paragraph 109)

23. The Government should stop allowing the funding of homeopathy on the NHS. (Paragraph 110)

24. We conclude that placebos should not be routinely prescribed on the NHS. The funding of homeopathic hospitals—hospitals that specialise in the administration of placebos—should not continue, and NHS doctors should not refer patients to homeopaths. (Paragraph 111)

Product Licences of Right

25. We are concerned that homeopathic products were, and continued to be, exempted from the requirement for evidence of efficacy and have been allowed to continue holding Product Licences of Right. We recommend that no PLRs for homeopathic products are renewed beyond 2013. (Paragraph 121)

The evidence check: licensing

26. We conclude that the MHRA should seek evidence of efficacy to the same standard for all the products examined for licensing which make medical claims and we recommend that the MHRA remove all references to homeopathic provings from its guidance other than to make it clear that they are not evidence of efficacy. (Paragraph 128)

27. We consider that the MHRA’s consultation, which led to the introduction of the NRS, was flawed and we remain unconvinced that the NRS was designed with a public health rationale. (Paragraph 135)

28. We fail to see why the label test design should be acceptable to the MHRA given that, first, it considers that homeopathic products have no effect beyond placebo and, second, Arnica Montana 30C contains no active ingredient and there is no scientific evidence that it has been demonstrated to be efficacious. We conclude that the user testing of the Arnica Montana 30C label was poorly designed with parts of the test actively misleading participants. In our view the MHRA’s testing of the public’s understanding of the labelling of homeopathic products is defective. (Paragraph 140)

29. If the MHRA is to continue to regulate the labelling of homeopathic products, which we do not support, we recommend that the tests are redesigned to ensure and demonstrate through user testing that participants clearly understand that the products contain no active ingredients and are unsupported by evidence of efficacy, and the labelling should not mention symptoms, unless the same standard of evidence of efficacy used to assess conventional medicines has been met. (Paragraph 141)

The role of pharmacies

30. We consider that the way to deal with the sale of homeopathic products is to remove any medical claim and any implied endorsement of efficacy by the MHRA—other than where its evidential standards used to assess conventional medicines have been met—and for the labelling to make it explicit that there is no scientific evidence that homeopathic products work beyond the placebo effect. (Paragraph 146)

31. Although it goes wider than the scope of this Evidence Check inquiry we must put on record our concern about the length of time the RPSGB appears to be taking to investigate and reach conclusions on cases where it has been alleged that its guidelines on the sale of homeopathic products have been breached. We recommend that the Government enquires into whether the RPSGB, and from the 2010 handover, the General Pharmaceutical Council, is doing an adequate job in respect of the time taken to pursue complaints. (Paragraph 151)

Conclusions on the licensing regimes

32. It is unacceptable for the MHRA to license placebo products—in this case sugar pills—conferring upon them some of the status of medicines. Even if medical claims on labels are prohibited, the MHRA’s licensing itself lends direct credibility to a product. Licensing paves the way for retail in pharmacies and consequently the patient’s view of the credibility of homeopathy may be further enhanced. We conclude that it is time to break this chain and, as the licensing regimes operated by the MHRA fail the Evidence Check, the MHRA should withdraw its discrete licensing schemes for homeopathic products. (Paragraph 152)

Overall conclusion

33. By providing homeopathy on the NHS and allowing MHRA licensing of products which subsequently appear on pharmacy shelves, the Government runs the risk of endorsing homeopathy as an efficacious system of medicine. To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products. (Paragraph 157)

This article was posted on December 25, 2011.

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