Phil Willis: Government should not endorse placebos – including homeopathy

Tuesday 23 February 2010 01:00 GMT

Since the Science and Technology Committee was re-formed in October 2009, we have been running a novel programme of work that we have called "Evidence Check". Its purpose is to examine how the Government uses evidence to formulate and review its policies. We have asked the Government to answer two questions: what is the policy, and on what evidence is the policy based?

Our second Evidence Check report examines the Government's policies on the provision of homeopathy through the National Health Service (NHS) and the licensing of homeopathic products by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

We welcome the Government's acknowledgement that there is no credible evidence of efficacy for homeopathy, which is an evidence-based view. However, the Government's view has not translated into evidence-based policies. The NHS funds homeopathy and has done so since 1948. We were disappointed that, in the light of its view on evidence for homeopathy, the Government has no appetite to review its policies in favour of an evidence-based approach. The Government was reluctant to address the issues of informed patient choice or the appropriateness and ethics of prescribing placebos to patients.

The MHRA licenses homeopathic products under three different licensing schemes. These arrangements, in part, arose through a historical legacy inherited by the MHRA. We were concerned, however, that in introducing the National Rules Scheme in 2006, the MHRA chose not to take a rigorous, evidence-based approach to licensing of homeopathic products. The MHRA's justification for introducing a scheme permitting products to make medical indications – that the product labelling was stringently tested to ensure patients would understand the purpose of the product – was not evidence-based.

By providing homeopathy on the NHS and allowing MHRA licensing of products which subsequently appear on pharmacy shelves, the Government runs the risk of endorsing homeopathy as an efficacious system of medicine. To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products.

Taken from a report published yesterday by a Commons Select Committee, of which Phil Willis MP was chairman

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