Homeopathy back on the NHS on the Wirral?

Boots homeopathy

Homeopathy, soon available on the NHS on the Wirral?

A few months ago, the Wirral Primary Care Trust (PCT) made the extremely reasonable decision to cease funding for homeopathy. This was done at a meeting of the Professional Executive Committee (PEC), which followed a public consultation (which I attended). John Cook of Northwest Friends of Homeopathy presented the case for homeopathy in both the public consultation and the PEC meeting, whilst Michael Marshall from the Merseyside Skeptics Society provided a voice for those who want their NHS to provide treatments based on good evidence. The PEC considered the evidence, and voted to scrap funding for homeopathy.

I thought that would be the end of it. However, Jo Brodie reports that this is not the case. Pauline Lomas, a cancer survivor and apparent fan of many ‘alternative therapies’ out there, instructed her solicitors Leigh Day & Co to challenge the Wirral PCT’s decision to hold it’s drug and therapy commissioning meetings in private. According to the Leigh Day & Co website (who illustrate the case with a bottle of vitamins), the action “would not have been possible without funding from the Legal Services Commission”, which as far as I’m aware means that they were able to access legal aid for this case.

So what will this mean for NHS funding of homeopathy on the Wirral? My guess is that there will be another commissioning meeting, held in public, where the homeopathy sympathisers will once again show up to bombard members of the PEC with their anecdotes. The science will not change, the evidence in support of homeopathy will be no better. I see no reason why the PCT will change their minds, they have essentially been caught out on a technicality. I imagine it’s cheaper to do this than to enter a legal battle with the solicitors.

Personally, the only aspect of the decision to stop funding for homeopathy that I have any sympathy for is the amount of notice given of the public consultation. However, that didn’t stop a room full of homeopathy sympathisers from filling two rooms at the PCT to tell the PEC their anecdotes. Needless to say, anecdotes don’t cut it as scientific evidence, so any other public consultation will just be a repeat and a pretty fruitless exercise. Having said that, it is good that the NHS is engaging with it’s patients, and I for one will be looking forward to being able to have my say again. I’m more concerned about Legal Aid being used to challenge a decision by a PCT to stop funding a pseudoscience. Another case of the law being used to defend quackery, as in the Simon Singh case?

I’m on the Pod Delusion again!

Pod DelusionI’m happy to say that I’ve made it onto the Pod Delusion again, this time appearing on the same show as Neil deGrasse Tyson no less! Following on from Bethany Jenkins’ piece about being a Christian and a skeptic, I thought I’d contribute my thoughts about who can be a skeptic, and what it takes to be one. In my opinion, anyone can be a skeptic. You don’t need to sign anything or commit your life to an institution!

I also believe that you can be a skeptic and believe in irrational things, but you should at least be able to recognise when you are being irrational. For example, I’m a football fan and I’ve got this daft belief that it’s unlucky for me to wear my Norwich shirt when they are playing, unless I’m watching the match. Now I know that my belief is total irrational nonsense, but I still do it! I know some people will disagree with me, but I think you can pick and choose what you are skeptical about. Who has the right to say otherwise? Anyway, enough of my rambling, check out the latest Pod Delusion!

QEDcon announces lower prices for next year!

Not only will the fantastic QED conference be back in Manchester next March, but the QED team today revealed that ticket prices will actually be lower than they were this year! A full ticket for the weekend will cost just £89 (cheaper for students) compared to £99 this year. I think that this is amazingly good value (TAM London take note) for what was a cracking weekend this year, just another reason why next year’s event is not to be missed! Tickets will be available to buy on the 29th of August, appropriately enough at 10:23am.

There is also a special rate for the hotel, with rooms available for £85 for a single and £95 for a double. I’m assuming that’s per night, and although it’s a pretty good rate for a top-quality hotel I’ll see if I can go for the hostel again. I really enjoyed the community atmosphere, but I think I’ll need to remember the ear plugs this time! Hope to see you all at QEDcon!

A preview of the results of the homeopathy survey

Water dropYou may remember that last month some homeopaths posted a somewhat mysterious survey up on surveymonkey.com, possibly in an attempt to get some sympathetic data. Of course, skeptics picked up on this and crashed the survey. I had a feeling that this would cause the homeopaths to abandon the survey (which is now closed), so I decided to register for surveymonkey.com myself and copy it. I promised to release the results this month.

Before I continue, I should say that surveymonkey.com are pretty cheeky monkeys! You can look at the first 100 responses of a survey for free, but anything more than that costs money. Not a prohibitively large amount of money mind, but enough. Also, as I type this there are currently 864 responses, I’d love to see it hit 1,000 soon! So, in the meantime I thought I’d look at data from the first 100 responses.

Not surprisingly, the data from these first 100 responses has a distinctively skeptical flavour. Bear in mind that this is a survey, so the most you can take from it is a measure of public opinion and not scientific conclusions! Let’s take a look at the questions and answers.

1. Do you know what Homeopathy is?

An overwhelming 96% of respondents answered this question with “yes”. This at least shows that people answering the questions think they know what they are talking about!

2. If you had a health concern, would you consider supplementing conventional medicine with alternative medicine such as Homeopathy?

I suppose this is the question that tells you what people really think of homeopathy and 93.9% answered this with “no” (one person skipped the question). So, at the early stages of the survey, I think it’s pretty save to say that the majority of respondents were not homeopathy sympathisers!

3. Have you ever taken a Homeopathic Remedy?

Now is where it gets a little interesting. 47.4% of people responded “yes”. Perhaps these people took homeopathy at a 10:23 event? Maybe they tried homeopathy and found it to be ineffective?

4. Qualified Homeopaths are no longer permitted to explain how Homeopathy works or offer any evidence on their websites because of a ruling by the Advertising Standards Agency. Do you think Homeopaths should be allowed to explain how Homeopathy works?

This is a fairly bizarre question, because the overwhelming scientific consensus is that homeopathy does not work, so how can you explain a phenomenon that isn’t present in the first place? Surprisingly (and bear in mind how many people said that they would not consider taking homeopathy as a complementary medicine) 43% of respondents answered “yes”. Fortunately, this is the first question where people are allowed to expand on their answers, and these answers reveal some interesting logic.

I think they should be required to explain how it is supposed to work and how stupid it is.

Actually, I thoroughly enjoy watching homeopaths try to explain how homeopathy works. You can’t invent that kind of comedy.

Yes because once you know you realise you should just take a sugar pill but make sure that someone else gives it to you telling you it will make you better. Will work just as well.

These answers seem to be suggesting that homeopaths should be allowed to try and explain how homeopathy works so that their patients can judge how silly it is. I’m not sure that I agree with that! Others argued on a freedom of speech level:

If homeopathy is going to exist, its practitioners should be able to explain it. Censoring information isn’t a way to effect worthwhile change — and as it is in every health food store where vitamins can’t list the conditions they treat, people will step in and tell you. This is a really terrible idea if the point is to help consumers understand their options.

5. Qualified Homeopaths are no longer allowed to state which medical conditions they treat. If you visited a Homeopaths website, would you find it useful or not useful to know which conditions they can treat?

This is in a similar vein to the last question. The science says that homeopaths can’t treat anything (unless you count the placebo effect), yet 33% of respondents said that it would be useful to know which conditions homeopaths can treat. A few people wanted the homeopaths to be honest:

They can treat the diseases which can be treated with placebos. If they said that, at least pacients would know they are not supposed to try to get rid of their cancer with Homeopathy, for example

I would find it very useful, if homeopaths would have to state, what they really can treat. According to a lot of scientific research it’s just nothing, and that has to be stated!

Since the answer is nothing, they should state that.

It would be nice to see a homeopath’s website where you click on “Conditions which can be treated with homeopathy” and get a blank page!

6. Qualified Homeopaths are no longer allowed to give testimonials from genuine patients if those patients want to state that their health has improved as a result of homeopathy. (Testimonials means comments only from verifiable, genuine patients) Do you think testimonials giving details of improvement from genuine patients should be not allowed or allowed?

The premise of this question goes against the mantra of “the plural of anecdote is not data”. Personal anecdotes are not evidence of efficacy, and the results so far reflect this position, with 82.5% of respondents saying that homeopaths should not be allowed to give patient testimonials.

7. Why do you think Homeopaths are being treated in this way?

The final question, and most of the responses are along skeptical lines:

Because they are charlatans and the public needs to be protected

Because they are quacks. At best making money from the gullible, at worst preventing effective medical treatment of illness.

Homeopaths are treated this way because homeopathy is a pseudoscience, which should not be depicted as an alternative to actual medicine.

However, towards the end of the responses a few answers from homeopathy sympathisers crept in:

Big Pharma wants to eliminate competition.

And my favourite logical fallacy-laden answer:

In a nutshell, homeopathy is a gentle, effective and increasingly popular healing model, that poses a threat to the profits of pharmaceutical companies, who have gained the support of the media (James Murdoch on GSK’s board of governors) to push their attack on homeopathy in the hope of undermining competition. Why do the skeptics not get up in arms about the number of people treated on the NHS for negative reactions to conventional drug treatments, or the fact that meta-analysis of anti-depressants show they are no better than placebo?

As these two answers were towards the end of the first 100 responses, I have an inkling that news of the survey reached homeopathy sympathisers and that the numbers will be very different once all the responses are taken into consideration. Like I say, I’m hoping to get 1,000 responses before closing the survey, and I will make the results available on request. Please spread the word!

Take the survey

My Pod Delusion début alongside Sir David Attenborough!

Pod DelusionI’ve been looking for something to contribute to The Pod Delusion, and I thought that my take on Morrissey’s recent comments would be a good place to start. So, I recorded my piece, sent it in, and was later informed that it was good enough to be in the show! As if that wasn’t exciting enough for me, I listened to the podcast this morning to find myself sandwiched between a piece on Baroness Greenfield’s latest waffle by Martin Robbins (the science correspondent for The Guardian) and an interview with the one and only Sir David Attenborough talking about his latest project! Surely I am not worthy!

You can hear the podcast on the Pod Delusion website, and it’s also available on iTunes. Any comments on my piece are very much welcome!