The credo of every doctor dating back more than 2,300 years to the ‘father of medicine’, Hippocrates, is: ‘First, do no harm’.
And to a large extent, homeopathy, a tradition that dates back some 220 years, meets this criteria.
I’ve never prescribed such remedies to any of my patients, but I rarely object if someone wants to use this type of alternative medicine alongside conventional drug treatments.
But when dangerous misinformation is being peddled about the alleged powers of homeopathy to cure disease or protect against infection as part of a toxic campaign to spread fear and mistrust of vaccines, then we must make a stand.
That’s why I wholeheartedly back the head of the NHS, Simon Stevens who, as the Mail reported yesterday, is demanding that the Professional Standards Authority [PSA] de-lists the Society of Homeopaths from its official register.
And to a large extent, homeopathy, a tradition that dates back some 220 years, meets this criteria (stock photo)
This is a serious step, and it risks tainting many practitioners of homeopathy — some 1,200 are registered in addition to many unregistered practitioners around the UK — with the same brush as the anti-vaxxers who have done so much to compromise NHS child vaccination campaigns, especially in the case of the MMR vaccine.
But with the percentage of unvaccinated children increasing every year, and the spread of potentially fatal diseases such as measles as a direct consequence, such a move has become necessary.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation stripped Britain of its ‘measles-free’ status — which had previously been achieved by a comprehensive NHS childhood vaccination programme.
Now the highly infectious illness is back and has been circulating in pockets of the population for more than 12 months.
It is both shameful and heartbreaking to see standards in public health slip in this way, not least because Britain is the birthplace of vaccines.
So much of the pioneering scientific work that has saved millions of lives worldwide was carried out here. So strong measures are required.
So much of the pioneering scientific work that has saved millions of lives worldwide was carried out here. So strong measures are required (stock photo)
NHS chief executive Mr Stevens is absolutely right to say that by including the Society of Homeopaths in the official register of professional organisations (such as the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council), we risk extending respectability to the anti-vaccine lobbyists who are spreading the lie that homeopathic remedies can cure or protect against virulent diseases and even stop them from circulating.
‘Anything that gives homeopathy a veneer of credibility risks chancers being able to con more people into parting with their hard-earned cash in return for bogus treatments which at best do nothing, and at worse can be potentially dangerous,’ Mr Stevens said this week.
I’m aware that many of my colleagues loathe homeopathy on principle because it runs counter to everything they learned in medical school.
The idea that ‘like cures like’ and that minute traces of a substance that triggers adverse symptoms can somehow project ‘memories’ onto water or alcohol molecules and then be used therapeutically is utterly unscientific. But, as a psychiatrist, I am also aware that the human mind is incredibly powerful and we do not fully understand it.
I first observed patient belief in the ‘magic’ of homeopathy when I was a junior doctor on a morning ward round.
The elderly patient had been brought in with recurrent stomach pain. Before she could be sent to the operating theatre, her pains subsided — all thanks, she declared, to her homeopathic tablets.
The consultant, I’m sorry to say, laughed in her face. ‘No reliable evidence that it works at all,’ he snapped.
To me, his attitude seemed counter-productive. If the patient was feeling better — and no one should ever under-rate the power of the placebo effect — then that was surely only a good thing. And if nothing else, the theatre would be freed up so another patient would get surgery sooner.
‘Keep taking the tablets,’ I whispered to her.
If the patient was feeling better — and no one should ever under-rate the power of the placebo effect — then that was surely only a good thing (stock photo)
I’ve even tried homeopathy myself. When I first started appearing on live TV, I was so stricken with nerves that I took a homeopathic remedy recommended by a friend — and discovered that it ‘worked’.
Intellectually, I knew it wasn’t really doing anything, but I noted some physical benefits. My pulse rate slowed and my head cleared. So the little pill became a ritual. I’d swallow one just before the lights in the studio went up, and immediately I was more relaxed. There were no side-effects and no risk of addiction or interactions.
Then, one day, I realised half way through a segment on camera that I’d forgotten to take the pills and yet I was quite calm. I didn’t need the tablets again.
When the NHS banned GPs from prescribing homeopathic remedies two years ago on the grounds that they were a ‘misuse of resources’, based on my observation of patients over the years and my own experience, I argued against the move.
In my view, the cost was low and the potential benefits of a placebo very real for some patients (including me!).
But when anti-vaccine campaigners start twisting facts to suit their lies about the dangers of vaccination and use erroneous claims about homeopathic treatments to persuade worried parents to seek alternatives, then I find my sympathy for this branch of complementary treatment waning.
I was horrified to read in Saturday’s Mail about one particular homeopath, Helen Kimball-Brooke, who runs a clinic in Ealing, West London, while campaigning for a ‘vaccine-free world’.
She uses Twitter to spread poisonous claims that vaccines ‘don’t prevent illness’, are ‘hazardous’, and a product of ‘medical tyranny’.
And I was left feeling distinctly queasy by a children’s picture book that Ms Kimball-Brooke had edited called Sarah Doesn’t Want to Be Vaccinated, about a little girl whose parents think that childhood illnesses such as measles are beneficial, leaving you ‘even healthier than you were before’.
At the very least, such a move will signal to patients that homeopathic remedies and the claims made for them should be treated with caution (stock photo)
What horrendous propaganda. It is unthinkable that such a misguided — and I’m being generous here — individual should be given any credence at all as she peddles her claptrap.
Which is why I feel it is far better to withdraw official accreditation from the whole of the Society of Homeopaths than to allow some of its members to exploit and brandish a stamp of official approval while spreading lies and distorting the facts.
At the very least, such a move will signal to patients that homeopathic remedies and the claims made for them should be treated with caution.
They do not deserve to be trusted in the same way that conventional treatments prescribed by doctors are — the quality, safety and efficacy of which have, as far as possible, been assured, and which have been tested in the laboratory and in clinical trials.
Homeopathy has a gentle history and I am sure the vast majority of its practitioners have the safety and well-being of their patients as a priority.
But we are also seeing a dark side to homeopathy — one that could leave many children facing an unnecessary illness and even death.
We must do everything possible to make sure that cannot happen.