Philip Hensher: Homeopathy is a waste of NHS money

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

Monday 22 February 2010 01:00

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.

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