Worth the effort…?

There is (fair) argument sometimes made that the huge amount of public money expended on often unnecessary and/or ineffective and/or downright dangerous ‘Big Pharma’ products renders objection to that frittered on, say, (always unnecessary, ineffective and potentially indirectly dangerous) homeopathy to be hardly worth rational effort. Indeed, the NHS’s 65-year support for homeopathy is on the wane: though not an immaterial amount – £412 million a year awarded to strapped academics could fund several research groups to work on important biomedical problems; the prescription bill of around £120-150,000 would support an individual research fellow for three years – it is comparatively small beer. As, I suppose, is the salary-ing of NHS chaplains. (And so is the cost to the public of the monarchy, but that’s another argument).

Still, the recently retired Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington, describes homeopathy as “mad“; his successor, Professor Dame Sally Davies, as “rubbish.” Appeal to authority? No, quoting experts appointed by the Government for the purpose. Perhaps such agitated, emotive words reflect their frustration at the Government’s refusal to act (unlike BUPA, which no longer covers homeopathy) on their recommendations. Which surely form more reliable basis for medical policy than ‘appeal to bandwagon’, which means little more than… a lot of people ‘buy’ it. (A lot of people also ‘buy’ astrology; but again, that’s another argument.)

Perhaps it is due to such popularity that the Government chooses to ignore its own advisers and the recommendations of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, on which now sits one David Tredinnick, MP for Bosworth in Leicestershire, Chairman of the All-Party Group for Integrated Healthcare, and espouser of some quite batty beliefs. This member’s CAM interests include endorsement of the provision of homeopathy on the NHS, a position having met with the sympathy of the current Health Secretary… whose department previously capitulated to Orwellian lobbying by Prince Charles‘s former Foundation for Integrated Medicine charity in censoring public information critical of homeopathy’s evidential deficiencies.

But it is not solely (still) wasted NHS expenditure that concerns the homeopathy sceptic, who is likely to be more occupied with the promotion of this nonsense and its quacking partner therapies. Whilst archetypically pseudoscience, homeopathy is only one sector of a large pie. CAM is big business, running into £ billions. As of the end of 2009, the UK’s ‘over-the-counter’ spend on complementary medicines was £213 million, having increased some 18% in the previous two years and outperforming the rest of the market. And the trend continues: between 2011 and 2016, CAM sales are forecast to grow by 60%. Such expenditure on products lacking evidential efficacy. Yes, people have the right to spend their own money on their own choices. But why are we being so collectively duped?

One alarmingly significant statistic on ‘Big Pharma’ is that it spends twice as much on marketing as it does on research. I don’t know the proportion expended by the CAM industry, but we can be pretty sure it is hardly likely to miss a trick – including misleadingly exploiting disgust at the failings of ‘Big Pharma.’ Ancient ‘wisdom’ is combined with pseudo-philosophy to appeal to the spiritual, wrapped up with modern scientific terminology to give an illusion of authenticity. Backed by the hot cupping ‘glamour’ of attention-seeking celebrities who promote it. Its growth is insidious.

When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he once argued that as long as teaching creationism in schools is not becoming mainstream, then it’s not a problem, because that would be when to worry. I’ll say, because it would be a bit bloody late then, wouldn’t it?! But CAM is ‘mainstream.’ One in three use it; an inordinate proportion of our scientifically, medically trained GPs either provide or refer to it (although the homeopathic moiety is apparently decreasing). There are even scientific medical journals publishing (eg) pro-homeopathy papers… following homeopathy-sympathetic peer review. The CAM wedge is firmly embedded beyond the thin end. I’m not quite sure what this says about our collective science education that engenders such post-modernist flouting of an evidence-based approach to medicine.

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