Ministers will be meeting next year to debate whether homeopathy should be available as an option for GPs, or whether it should be put on a ‘blacklist’ of treatment options that GPs are not allowed to prescribe.
Homeopathy often draws mixed responses; sceptics say there is no proven benefit and patients are just being given useless sugar tablets, but its defenders claim many patients get significant benefit from it. The total NHS bill for homeopathy, including homeopathic hospitals and GP prescriptions, is thought to be about £4m. Ministers are saying NHS resources should be focused on treatments that are clinically proven to offer benefit to patients.
Homeopathy is based on the principle that “like cures like”, and uses highly diluted versions of the substances that cause illness, which practitioners claim help the body to heal. So highly diluted grass pollen can be used to treat hay fever.
However, it is this dilution that causes the controversy, as the dilution effect is so great that in the end there is little, if any, of the original substance left in the remedy mixture. For example, one part of the substance is mixed with 99 parts of water (or alcohol), the diluted solution is then further diluted in the same manner and this dilution process is repeated many times over. The end result is then combined with a sugar tablet. Homeopaths say the more diluted it is, the greater the effect. Critics say patients are getting nothing but sugar.
Common homeopathic treatments are for asthma, ear infections, hay-fever and allergies but also include treatments for stress, anxiety and arthritis. However, there has long been a debate in medical and scientific circles about whether homeopathy is effective. Many scientists are sceptical that something so diluted, it effectively becomes just water, can have any clinical effect.
There have been several investigations to determine if homeopathy does actually give a clinical benefit but results have not tended to support this. In 2010, a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy and said that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos, and that the principles on which homeopathy is based are “scientifically implausible”.
In general, homeopathy is usually practiced privately, with remedies available from practitioners and in pharmacies. It is available on the NHS in some areas of the country, with several NHS homeopathic hospitals. Some GPS will also offer homeopathic treatments.
Doctors who practice homeopathy say that it can offer significant benefits for patients, and many people are convinced of its effectiveness. They support the continued use as it offers patients a choice and only accounts for around about £110,000 per year of GP prescriptions.
It is thought any change in the use of homeopathic medicines following the consultation next year will only affect GP prescribing and not homeopathic hospitals, which account for the bulk of the NHS money spent on homeopathy. People will also still be able to see practitioners privately or buy products in pharmacies etc.