Philip Hensher: Homeopathy is a waste of NHS money

We don't object to people spending their healthcare money on anything they choose

Share
Related Topics

When I was very little – and you too, I dare say – sometimes I would fall over when running in the garden, in the local woods, or in the street.

Usually, you run to your mother, don't you? And if you'd grazed yourself, or weren't actually streaming with blood from an open wound, she would say: "Oh dear – I tell you what, I'll kiss it better." And the odd thing is that a kiss from your mother, when you're three or four, does seem to make it better.

I don't suppose anyone has ever doubted the efficacy of this age-old treatment. On the other hand, no one has yet asked the Government for millions of pounds to set up "Kiss It Better" hospitals, with kindly mothers well-paid and waiting for patients to present themselves with minor injuries for a hug and a kiss and a pat on the bottom. I don't say it wouldn't work. On the other hand, it is probably not something the Government would consider funding.

The House of Commons select committee on science and technology has been examining the claims of homeopathy. If you were wondering what the remit of a select committee was to look into alternative medicine – it's not a research institute, after all – the answer is simple. Public money went into the supply of homeopathy to NHS patients to the tune of £12m between 2005 and 2008. There are four NHS homeopathic "hospitals" in London, Glasgow, Bristol and Liverpool, each funded to hand out placebos to ill people.

I say "placebos" because there is no scientific evidence that homeopathy works. The remedies are diluted to the point that there is not one single molecule of the original material left in the medicine. A couple of weekends ago, anti-homeopathy campaigners carried out a mass overdose in public, with roughly the same results you would expect if they took 60 sugar tablets – none whatsoever. That is because they took 60 sugar tablets.

Homeopaths are sincere people, who believe in their medicine as working beyond the well-documented placebo effect. On the other hand, where a clinical trial has succeeded in demonstrating the distinction between a homeopathic remedy and a placebo, the findings have proved impossible to replicate. We have all heard anecdotes about the success of homeopathy in particular cases. But science just can't demonstrate a consistent effect.

And the anecdotes you don't tend to hear are those in which homeopathy persuaded people to abandon efficient conventional medicine in serious cases, to catastrophic effect. A homeopathic couple in Australia were jailed in 2009 for failing to seek proper medical help for their baby daughter, who died. Barely less reprehensible are those people who were trying to divert funds from proper emergency healthcare after the earthquake in Haiti to useless homeopathic remedies.

The select committee is expected to recommend that government funding for homeopathy should cease. Healthcare in this country is often described as facing "difficult choices". Well, here is one that ought to be a very easy one, and the Government ought to take the recommendation without hesitation. We don't object to people spending their healthcare money on anything they choose, from crystals to quack ointments to chanting gurus, with two caveats. First, they should have the sense to call the GP if there is something seriously wrong. Secondly, it should be their own money they are wasting, and understand that they can't call on government funds to further these absurd schemes. Those millions of pounds deserve a better healthcare destination than packets of sugar tablets, and the adult equivalent of your mother, kissing it better.

Forget the hype, Lady Gaga's voice is the real star

At some point, there just seems no point in further resistance. "Well, I'm not going to buy it," you tell yourself. "It's just hype. I've seen it all before. It's just another Vietnam movie/dead-animal conceptualist/Dickens-and-tits dramatisation/starlet. If I just sit here and ignore it it will go away in about three months." And then sometimes it just doesn't, and you have to admit that you might as well get with the programme. Against all my conscious intentions, I have to admit it. I love Lady Gaga.

It had been coming on for some time, but her performance at the Brits sealed it. What a stage apparition – an H.P.Lovecraft nymph seated at the piano, hair exploding in a mushroom cloud, her enormous, animal eyes the focus of the camera's attention. But she could come on in a burka and you would listen. The voice – so grainy, yearning and Billie Holidayish – hasn't even begun to discover its possibilities yet. All the hype and gossip and amusing jokes about her being New York's answer to Su Pollard, the long-running discussion about whether Gaga is actually a man fade away in the face of the immense, unmistakable sound she produces.

It's now too late: you're just going to have to put up with her now. Probably we felt like that 25 years ago about Madonna, but there's one crucial difference, and it's Lady Gaga's voice.

Even great writers' memories play tricks

Martin Amis is generally thought to be one of the most inventive users of language around. So Private Eye was very pleased to discover that a conspicuously brilliant phrase in his new novel, The Pregnant Widow, had a certain pedigree. Mr Amis had described a fly as having a "gas-mask face" – an apt and vivid description. The magazine pointed out, however, that exactly the same comparison had been used by a much less well-known writer, Horatio Clare, some years before, and had been highlighted in a Sunday newspaper's book review.

Bad luck. For most writers, memory and creation are not as distinct as lawyers tell us they ought to be. Of course, one recognises a cliché, but when a smart phrase comes to mind after contemplating an object for some minutes, one doesn't always distinguish an invention from a submerged memory. I once described a fart in a novel as having the effect of a bough breaking under the weight of fruit. It turned out that I had read the simile in Kingsley Amis's letters, and unknowingly repeated it.

Still, it was a good simile, as Mr Clare's about the fly's gas-mask face was. I hope Mr Clare doesn't mind too much that a line of his was found good enough for Martin Amis.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Queen Elizabeth delivers the Queen's Speech next to Prince Phillip during the State Opening of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster in London  

A Queen's Speech which exposed this government for what it really is — Thatcherism with the lid on

James Bloodworth
Fifa president Sepp Blatter  

Fifa corruption arrests: A syndicate so removed from reality that it may yet destroy the thing it loves

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

Hanging with the Hoff

Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

Hipsters of Arabia

Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

The cult of Roger Federer

What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

Malaysian munchies

With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
10 best festival beauty

Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

A Different League

Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

Steve Bunce on Boxing

Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf