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Close to home

September 19th, 2008 Posted in Health

I had a shock today when I was wandering past Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and I spotted something truly horrific in the corner of one of the hospital wings, worryingly near to the main entrance. Yes, it’s the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (RLHH). I think it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have been any more surprised if I’d seen a department for Leech Studies or Phrenology, or if I’d been wandering the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and noticed a Institute of Astrology.

Homeopathy, for those who don’t know, is the pseudoscientific belief that real diseases can be treated by giving people tiny doses of water. No, really.  Of course, this is explained by saying that the water is actually an extremely dilute solution of various active ingredients which are prepared using a magical procedure involving diluting them gradually to such an extent that not one single molecule of the original substance remains, together with shaking them in a certain manner and performing a ritual dance around the laboratory.  Ok, so I lied about the dance, but the rest is true.

In fact, homeopathy is a completely disproven branch of quackery that is not only ridiculous but also, to the degree in which it encourages people away from conventional medical techniques that could actually help them, potentially very dangerous.  It is one of the more visible of a group of techniques euphemistically and misleadingly called ‘complementary medicine’ which are championed by, amongst others, our wacky and delusional heir to the throne, Prince Charles.

Complementary medicine makes it sound like this is simply a different way of doing things, equally valid to conventional medicine but somehow more wholesome.  Of course, in reality, there are two kinds of medicine, science-based medicine and everything else. Homeopathy falls in the latter category and, therefore, has zero basis in reality to the best of our knowledge.  The fact that it continues to be funded by public money is a disgrace.  All science-based treatments need to pass a painstakingly exacting series of trials to prove their efficacy.  Anything that is not science-based has no such testing and, consequently, is at best likely to be useless and at worse can actually be dangerous.

£18.5 million has been spent between 2002 and 2005 revamping the RLHH.  For comparison, that money could have been spent on approximately 300-400 dialysis machines to help people with kidney disease, or it could have funded 15-20 top of the range MRI scanners to improve the standard of care in hospitals across the country.

So what are the arguments for complementary medicine? Well, as far as I can see the main argument is that it really helps people. Let’s look at that.  There are three points to make here.

  1. Often, these techniques of complementary medicine such as homeopathy are used to treat self-limiting diseases. That is, diseases which go away by themselves thanks to the body’s immune system. People quite often mistakenly assign the cure to the complementary technique, without realising that the condition would have gone away on its own. Often, people turn to complementary techniques when their disease is at its worst; which is to say, just before it would naturally have started to improve anyway.  Post hoc ergo propter hoc.
  2. Lots of people who claim to have been helped by such techniques are really just talking about subjective conditions such as pain. When there is such a condition, people often misremember exactly what the condition used to be like before the treatment (human memory is highly flawed), especially if they have a vested interest in believing that the treatment worked (for example, if they paid money for it and don’t want to feel like an idiot).  Often, if there is also an objective measure of the symptoms involved, studies show that the symptoms have not improved at all despite the patient’s contrary beliefs.  Do a google search for “subjective symptoms unreliable”, or similar, and you’ll find loads of these.
  3. Psychological diseases, such as those caused by stress, can indeed be alleviated by going through a process of relaxation such as is often the case in homeopathic care.  Often the practicioner has more time with each patient, can genuinely listen and care for that patient and can put their mind at rest. This is often all that is needed to help cure those symptoms. Of course, in this case, as with the others, the homeopathic medicine had no effect.

The argument might be raised that we should support the RLHH because even a sham, placebo treatment does often have demonstrable positive effects.  Well, I hope I’ve shown that most of the time those positive effects are not because of the treatment. But yes, I agree that the act of speaking with a medical practicioner who genuinely has the time to talk with you about your worries can be a reassuring and calming experience. That’s not an argument for homeopathy – it’s an argument for getting some friends.

Fortunately, the funding for the RLHH is being cut and the hospital is in the process of dying off.  This has made a lot of people very unhappy. Fortunately, one of them has given us a list of people to contact if you don’t like the current state of affairs.  So if, for example, you wanted to tell the people in charge that homeopathy was an insane waste of public money, then here are the people you need to contact.

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