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Homeopathy – Should the NHS Shoulder the Cost?

In the current financial climate and against a backdrop of sweeping government cuts it is essential to ensure that NHS budgets are spent in the most effective way. NHS budgets are currently under enormous pressure, which makes it increasingly important that the limited resources the NHS do have are spent on evidence-based medicine that helps patients and represents value for the tax payer.

Homeopathy is a contentious issue, because while only relatively small amounts of NHS funding are being spent on it, there is very little evidence to suggest this type of treatment actually improves the patient’s condition.

Supporters of homeopathy argue that patient choice should determine which medicines are funded by the NHS. However, with budgets spread so thin, it is crucial that any decision to foot the bill for homeopathic treatments is an informed one.

What is homeopathy?

Homeopathy is a 200 year old system of complementary medicine in which ailments are treated by highly diluted substances. These are given orally in the belief they will stimulate the body’s self-healing mechanism.

The British Homeopathic Association states that this form of medicine is used by over 200 million people worldwide to treat acute and chronic conditions, and is based on the principle that ‘like cures like’. This means that a substance taken in small amounts will cure the same symptoms it causes if it were taken in larger amounts.

What does the evidence say?

Those against the NHS funding this type of treatment complain that homeopathy has no scientific backing and any positive results are simply down to the ‘placebo’ effect. The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, believes there should be no further funding of homeopathy by the NHS. It said it was concerned scarce resources were being spent on “a treatment with no scientific evidence to support its use”.

Over the last 18 months there have been some pretty compelling arguments that the NHS should not be funding homeopathic remedies. The homeopathy page of the NHS website itself states that: “Homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos, and that the principles on which homeopathy is based are scientifically implausible”.

The Science and Technology Select Committee has also evaluated the evidence and recommended a cease to all NHS spending on what it describes as ‘thoroughly-discredited sugar pills’.

How much money is spent on homeopathy?

Currently, the NHS spends approximately £4 million on year on homeopathy, with three homeopathic hospitals run by the NHS in the UK, in London, Glasgow and Bristol. An appointment with a homeopath and a course of tablets costs around £140 per patient.

However, over the last two decades, the number of prescriptions for homeopathic treatments on the NHS has fallen dramatically, by more than 94 percent. As a result, the homeopathic hospitals have seen much of their funding relocated to other areas, which seems to suggest that the vast majority of doctors and commissioning bodies are acting to terminate funding for this type of treatment.

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