Jul 21 2010
Homeopathy is having a bad year. From a scientific point of view, it has had a couple of bad centuries. The progress of our scientific understanding of biology, chemistry, and physics has failed to confirm any of the core beliefs of homeopathy. Like does not cure like (this is a form of superstition known as sympathetic magic, with no basis in science). Diluting substances does not make them stronger – a notion that violates the chemical law of mass action and the laws of thermodynamics. And countless clinical studies have shown that homeopathic preparations are nothing more than placebos. That homeopathy cannot work and does not work is settled science, as much as it is possible for science to be settled.
Despite the science, homeopathy has persevered through a combination of cultural inertia and political support. But in the last year there are signs that this trend may be reversing. In the UK The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) released a report, Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy, in which they conclude that homeopathy is failed science and should be completely abandoned – no further support in the NHS and no further research.
Following that the British Medical Association has openly called for an NHS ban on homeopathy, calling the practice “witchcraft.”
Karl Lauterbach, the centre-left Social Democrats’ chair on the Bundestag health committee, told German news magazine Der Spiegel that insurers should be “prohibited from paying for homeopathy.”
According to Spiegel, Rainer Hess of the Federal Joint Committee for doctors and insurers also characterized the current situation as “extremely unsatisfactory.”
The common thread in the UK and Germany is rising health care costs, which is creating the political will to oppose worthless interventions like homeopathy. Up until now systems like homeopathy which are not science-based have received political support from individual believers and promoted largely through the notion of “health care freedom.” But the political climate is changing, and suddenly paying for interventions that do not work seems unnecessarily wasteful. This creates an opportunity to focus attention on interventions like homeopathy.
In Germany, as in the US, homeopathy has received support from individual politicians. According to the cited news article:
“There have already been many attempts to drop protective provisions on such remedies, but influential politicians have consistently prevented this from happening,” Hess said, adding that despite hundreds of medical studies failing to clearly prove the benefits of homeopathics, insurers are still made to pay for them.
It sounds like Germany has had their own Tom Harkin and Orin Hatch to contend with. Political support for homeopathy in the US actually goes back much further. In 1938 Senator Royal Copeland from New York, a homeopath, managed to insert into the new FDA regulations automatic approval for homeopathic products. This situation continues to today – homeopathic products do not require any testing for safety and efficacy.
It is good to hear that politicians in Germany are now openly discussing not only removing the protections that force insurance companies to pay for homeopathy, but actually banning insurance companies from paying for it. This would be similar to the BMA proposed ban on NHS support for homeopathy.
In both cases no one is proposing that homeopathy itself be banned. If an individual wants to pay for water in the mistaken belief that it is an effective remedy, they are free to do so. However, the seller should not be free to make misleading or fraudulent claims – but that is a different type of regulation. What is now being discussed in Germany and the UK is simply preventing public money from being spent on treatments which have already been proven not to work.
I would like to see these efforts spread to the US. We are facing our own health care crisis here, with a new focus on cost-effective medicine. Amazingly, Harkin was able to hijack efforts to deal with the situation (through “Obamacare”) to increase public support for unscientific medicine. This trend needs to reverse – and homeopathy seems like the low-hanging fruit to me.
With homeopathy the science could not be more clear, and recent exhaustive reviews, like Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy, have shown that it simply does not work. It should therefore be an easy political position to take, that our limited health care dollars should not be spent on ineffective medicine.
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