David Colquhoun: These misleading beliefs are curing no one's ills

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The Independent Online

What on Earth is going on? The Government appears to think nothing is wrong with giving you fake medicine at the taxpayers' expense. They said it is fine for doctors to give you pills that contain nothing whatsoever and charge them to the NHS. Homeopathy really is that simple. Most of the pills contain nothing apart from some sugar. A homeopathic pharmacy may have 3000 or so bottles, all identical, with no trace of the ingredient on the label. If it were not for special loopholes in the law, that would be as illegal as selling whisky with no alcohol. It isn't as though MPs aren't aware of this. The then Health Minister, Mike O'Brien – when asked by the Parliamentary Science and technology Committee if he had ". . . any credible evidence that homeopathy works beyond the placebo effect?", answered: ". . . the straight answer is no".

The scientific advisor to the Department of Health and the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor say much the same thing. Even Boots' Professional Standards Director agreed but felt, ahem, professional standards were maintained by selling them anyway.

We live in a society dominated by science. Most of our industries are science-based (apart from banks that are gambling-based – and look where they got us).

Yet MPs seem to have no inkling of how it works. Of course, not all are quite as eccentric as the marvellous David Tredinnick (Cons, Bosworth), he of cash for questions, who charged the taxpayer for his astrological fantasies and who thought homeopathic borax might be good for Foot and Mouth disease. But the health minister understood that it didn't work and that seems to leave only the possibility that he supports it because there are few votes in stopping it. Some principles.

It is possible and desirable to have an honest discussion of the propriety of giving a patient a placebo when there is nothing better that can be done. The ludicrous situation at present is that doctors are not supposed to give placebos honestly, but are allowed to give them dishonestly by refereeing you to a homeopath. Despite being asked many times to refer alternative medicines to Nice for evaluation, the Department of Health has failed to do so. Could it be because they know that most will fail?

There is no excuse for failing to submit all medicines to the same criteria of efficacy and safety.

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