Julian Huppert on Homeopathy


Tuesday, June 29th, 2010. 4:46pm

The NHS in the UK spends huge amounts of public money on “homoeopathic” treatments. This is despite a report published earlier this year by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee which concluded:

That the NHS should cease funding homeopathy.

Having been selected to ask a topical question on Health in the House of Commons on the 29th of June 2010 Cambridge MP Julian Huppert asked:

Does the Secretary of State accept:

Given the financial constraints which we all share can he defend spending millions of pounds of NHS money on methods which simply do not work?

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley was present, but he delegated answering the question to a junior minister, Anne Milton. In reply she said:

I thank the honourable gentleman for his friend, for his question. And say that he seams to know something no one else seems to know that is exactly how much is spent on homeopathic treatments. They are a decision that should be taken by doctors locally. The effectiveness, the safety and the efficacy of a treatment should be taken into account. The estimate is that 0.001% of the drugs bill is currently spent [on homeopathic remedies] at the present time. We are currently looking at the Science and Technology Committee’s report and we will hope to respond to it before the summer recess.

I am shocked that the junior minister is prepared to stand up and do anything other than announce an immediate stop to the state funding of nonsense remedies. It is also scandalous that she doesn’t know how much the NHS is wasting. Some people have made FOI requests in public via mySociety’s Freedom of Information website – WhatDoTheyKnow.com to look into the costs involved. One request to Bath and North East Somerset Primary Care Trust (PCT) revealed the existence of the “Bristol Homeopathic Hospital”, which has been “treating” thousands of people at a cost to the NHS of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The report from the Science and Technology committee reports that in oral evidence a Health Minister said that “several million” was spent each year by the NHS on homeopathy.

Early Day Motions

On the 21st of June David Tredinnick the MP for Bosworth, a Conservative, put down four Early Day motions in support of homeopathy. Julian Huppert very rapidly responded to amend them pointing out the flaws in the scientific publications cited and the approach being taken by Mr Tredinnick.

At the time of writing while up to sixteen MPs have supported Mr Tredinnick’s motions, none have signed up to Julian Huppert’s amendments. James Moffatt has tweeted to suggest this is because Mr Huppert’s amendments have so categorically shown up the flaws in the motions that most MPs will consider them a sufficient response in and of them themselves. Mr Moffatt wrote:

Most MPs see EDM as a bit of joke. @JulianHuppert ‘s additions will make them giggle, but probably think “enough said”

The full text of the articles refereed to in the motions can be found online so the accuracy of what Mr Huppert has said in his amendments can be verified:

Title: Homeopathic Individualized Q-potencies versus Fluoxetine for Moderate to Severe Depression: Double-blind, Randomized Non-inferiority Trial
Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2009 Aug 17.,
Full Text:http://ecam.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/nep114

Title: Cytotoxic effects of ultra-diluted remedies on breast cancer cells
Int J Oncol. 2010 Feb;36(2):395-403.
Full Text: http://scepticsbook.com/wp-content/uploads/Cytotoxic-effects-of-homeopathic-remedies-on-breast-cancer-cells-2010.pdf

Title: Chronic primary insomnia: Efficacy of homeopathic simillimum
Homeopathy Volume 99, Issue 1, January 2010, Pages 63-68
Full Text: http://www.wellnesshp.com/homeopathyresearch/ehs.pdf

The problems highlighted include small sample sizes, the abstract not reflecting the content of the paper (a flaw in peer review) and a failure to statistically justify the conclusions being drawn. The paper on the Cytotoxic effects of ultra-diluted remedies on breast cancer cells is particularly shocking as the results suggest merely that the solvent being applied to the cells is more toxic to one cell line than another – though without the raw data or a statistical analysis not even that conclusion can be drawn. The control cell line is an immortalized cell line, which means its cell cycle control, like that of a cancer cell, is not functioning normally. Huppert’s amendments also point out that policy decisions ought not be based on individual papers and individual trials but on a wider view of all the evidence.

One side issue highlighted by this is the difficulty and costs involved in accessing scientific publications. Access to one of the above papers is being sold by publisher Elsevier B.V at a price of $31.50 for the article and a further $31.50 for the erratum notice associated with it. Often arrangements for distributing the publications describing the results of scientific research are bizarre.

Support for Tredinnick

Homeopathy supporting MP David Tredinnick has been appointed by the Conservatives to the Health Select Committee.

This worryingly suggests that he isn’t a lone crackpot, but has the support of others in one of the UK Governing parties. His EDMs in this parliament and, in the last, have gained signatures from other MPs.

Twittering

There is no system run by Parliament for alerting people when their MPs have been selected to ask questions in the House of Commons (or any system to give advanced notice of other things MPs might be selected to do eg. hold adjournment debates). With respect to this topical question Mr Huppert tweeted to let people know he had been selected to ask it, and he invited people to suggest topics which he should raise.

I responded to the call and was one of those who suggested Mr Huppert ought use the opportunity to yet more attention to the public money wasted on homeopathy by the NHS and the worrying stance being taken by other MPs. I tweeted:

@JulianHuppert Hoping you use your topical Q to keep drawing attention to ludicrous public spending on homeopathy eg. http://bit.ly/9kefDf

Mr Huppert also tweeted on an encounter he had with Mr Tredinnick:

@julianhuppert: Bumped into David Tredinnick in lobby. He said it was illiberal to oppose homeopathy. I said it was about evidence.

12 comments/updates on “Julian Huppert on Homeopathy

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    David Tredinnick also asked a question:

    Would my right hon. Friend accept that there is widespread anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of homeopathic medicines? There are 500 doctors in this country who use them, and nobody is obliged to have them if they do not want them. Will he therefore heavily discount the illiberal views of our hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert)?

    The junior minister Anne Milton responded, but without in any way even coming close to addressing the point made:

    May I thank my hon. Friend for his question and pay tribute to him for his continued and persistent lobbying on the subject? I gather that he has been elected a member of the Select Committee on Health, so I welcome him to that position and I am sure that we will meet again at some point.

    Mr Tredinnick has rather scuppered his own argument by citing only “widespread anecdotal evidence” in support of it. He is wrong to characterise what Mr Huppert has said as illiberal as Mr Huppert is not seeking to ban anything, just ensure that public funds for the health service are not wasted on remedies which do not and cannot work.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    The sixteen MPs who have signed up to David Tredinnick’s EDM welcoming the paper titled : “Cytotoxic effects of ultra-diluted remedies on breast cancer cells” and saying that they believe the results “demonstrate biological activity of these natural products when presented at ultra-diluted doses”:

    David Tredinnick, Conservative MP for Bosworth
    Robert Halfon, Consrvative MP for Harlow. halfon4harlow@roberthalfon.com
    Steve Brine, Conservative MP for Winchester. steve.brine.mp@parliament.uk http://twitter.com/sbrine
    Dr William McCrea, Democratic Unionist Party MP for Mid-Ulster.
    Bob Stewart, Conservative MP for Beckenham.
    Joan Walley, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North. walleyj@parliament.uk
    Gregory Campbell, Democratic Unionist Party for East Londonderry
    James Gray, Conservative MP for North Wiltshire.
    Gordon Birtwistle, Liberal Democrat MP for Burnley.
    Luciana Berger, Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree.
    Richard Harrington, Conservative MP for Watford. richard.harrington.mp@parliament.uk
    Jessica Lee, Conservative MP for Erewash.
    Julie Elliott, Labour MP for Sunderland Central.
    Yvonne Fovargue, Labour MP for Makerfield.
    Alan Meale, Labour MP for Mansfield.
    Keith Vaz, Labour MP for Leicester East

    On Twitter Mr Brine has said: “I am looking at all the evidence. People wildly overestimate what EDMs are! If you want to lobby me on the subject, pls write.”

  3. David Griffin

    That ANY public money is being spent on homeopathy is a scandal. That a science or health select committee should include someone with so little understanding of scientific evidence is profoundly disturbing.
    If this government want to cut unnecessary spending and collect “a government of all the talents” may I recommend they appoint Ben Goldacre to the select committee on health immediately ?

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have written and sent the below:

    From: Richard Taylor
    Date: 30 June 2010 15:05:51 GMT+01:00
    To: halfon4harlow@roberthalfon.com
    Subject: Your Belief in Magic Potions

    Dear Mr Halfon,

    By signing EDM 285 you have said you believe that the research reported in a paper entitled: “Cytotoxic effects of ultra-diluted remedies on breast cancer cells” [International Journal of Oncology, 2010 Feb; 36(2): 395-403] demonstrates the biological activity of “ultra-diluted” “homeopathic” remedies.

    If you have not already done so I suggest you read the full article which has been made available at:

    http://scepticsbook.com/wp-content/uploads/Cytotoxic-effects-of-homeopathic-remedies-on-breast-cancer-cells-2010.pdf

    The paper states that analysis of the solvent control shows it has a different composition to the “remedies”; whereas the idea surely is that the effects of substantially chemically identical remedies are to be being compared. If there was a chemical difference between the control and the “remedies” then presumably that might easily explain any differences in the toxicity of the substances on the cells, without the need to invoke magic.

    There is also no statistical basis given for drawing the conclusions reached.

    I would suggest that drawing the conclusion you have on the basis of any individual paper, and particularly this one, was a mis-judgement; and would like to suggest you instead seek to inform yourself about the efficacy of homeopathy by reading about the position taken by those who have reviewed much wider scientific evidence, for example the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee:

    http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-archive/science-technology/s-t-homeopathy-inquiry/

    and those who have conducted systematic reviews of clinical trials, for example:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10853874

    Spending many millions of pounds of taxpayers money on remedies which cannot and do not work while pretending they are effective drugs is scandalous. It makes a laughing stock of the UK and supporting spending public money on magic potions risks encouraging people to believe they might be effective at treating diseases and might be damaging to people’s health if they avoid, or delay seeking effective mainstream treatment for their symptoms.

    Do you still support this EDM, and the others on homeopathy, which you signed a couple of weeks ago?

    I suggest a major underlying problem here is the poor quality of education, particularly science education, in schools in the UK.

    Regards,

    Richard Taylor
    Cambridge
    http://www.rtaylor.co.uk

  5. Anne Garvey

    Thank goodness Julian Huppert is prepared to stand up to this wasteful nonsense spending, and well done Richard Taylor and scientific colleagues who keep up the pressure to keep this kind of mumbo jumbo out of the hard pressed health world. What is really worrying though is that a believer in this money sapping codswallop is on a Government Health Committee. As Simon Hoggart said in the Guardian, ‘What next? An astrologer on the Financial Affairs Committee?’

  6. Adam B

    I note that Anne Milton’s answer was on homoeopathic treatments as a fraction of the drug bill – surely the relevant figure includes the amount spent on the consultations and investigations that produce the meaningless diagnoses that homoeopaths use to select the appropriate placebo.

    Anne Garvey: David Tredinnick is indeed a fan of astrology as well as of homoeopathy.

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    Steve Brine MP has responded to the above email, a version of which I also sent to him.

    Dear Mr Taylor,

    Many thanks for your email, the title of which did make me smile!

    Firstly I do think people read much more into EDMs than they actually signify. Many call them Parliamentary graffiti and they do have a point!

    Personally, I was asked to sign them and I am interested in what they say to open up a debate; nothing more than that. There is a meeting in Parliament next month I believe and I think it’s worth me listening to what they have to say. I intend to do that.

    I assure you that, as someone who has more than enough experience of serious illness in my personal life, I am not one to give false hope to anyone and I have made it clear that would be the cruellest of things. All these EDMs are actually looking at is the option for GPs to have some form of homeopathy in their armoury but their decisions must always be clinically led and do what is best clinically for their patients. I know that more than anyone.

    Regards,

    Steve Brine

    Steve Brine
    MP for Winchester & Chandler’s Ford

  8. Linden Ford

    It is possible that different people respond to different types of medicine? Personally, having tried homeopathy at various times, I was not helped by it at all. But I have known people who have been helped, including somebody who was able to cancel planned surgery after a homeopathic treatment to remove a cyst.
    Homeopathic medicine is widespread in France, and I believe Germany – hardly countries which are laughing stocks?
    If it did work even for a portion of the population, wouldn’t it be helping the health budget?, as it seems so much cheaper than conventional medicines?
    Obviously, conventional/allopathic medicine is life-saving and life-enhancing for the majority of people. However, I have also known people who end up taking one allopathic medicine to treat the effects of another one. Or who develop another medical condition as a side effect. I knew someone who died from side effects. Isn’t it therefore a good thing to at least look into an alternative, gentler system of medicine for those it may be more suited to?
    Maybe not everything is amenable to scientific study?
    It would be interesting to hear from some Cambridge homeopaths!
    I think I would choose freedom of choice, and a spirit of investigation, unless/until all evidence for homeopathy became overwhelmingly negative.

  9. Wendy / Nature lover

    ‘Allopathic’ medicines save many lives, but there is another side to the coin, in that they are often overprescribed for lesser ailments – then they can and do cause all sorts of damage and further health problems in people who are oversensitive to harsh chemicals. They are often given to suppress symptoms (eg. paracetamol to reduce a temperature, yet the high temperature is the body’s natural way of throwing off an infection…). That to me seems more ‘nutty’ than homoeopathy…. People should be allowed to make their own choices.

    I saw a Horizon programme maybe 20 years ago which had a sort of ‘Particle Physics’ explanation for homoeopathy (quite scientific!) involving the fact that the remedies, in their very small dosages (which do not usually cause side-effects), leave IMPRINTS ON WATER MOLECULES in the body…. We are composed of, is it 60% water – something very subtle, but as yet not fully explained, would seem to be happening at a molecular level, to provoke a healing response (perhaps something parallel to vaccination, when a tiny amount of an infective agent induces a major and beneficial response in the body)?

    I believe the late Queen Mother was a big fan of homoeopathy (and had a long and healthy life), as is Prince Charles. It could be seen perhaps as a way of dealing certainly with more minor ailments, before they lead to major health problems. And yes, it is widely used in other countries, and they are most certainly not laughing stocks as a result. Just because something can not yet be fully explained in a clinical, scientific way, does not mean it is ‘mumbo jumbo’….. it has been around for a long time and has helped significant numbers of people (and animals, dare I add?! – allegedly, anyway…). I wait to be shot down….

  10. Wendy / Nature lover

    Maybe it is the financial issue, and the fact that some ‘health service public funds’ are being directed for homoeopathic treatment, that is primarily being opposed? If so I can appreciate that to a degree – maybe it is not what the NHS is about?? But I do find the strenuous denouncing here of homoeopathy as ‘mumbo jumbo’, and something only believed in by ‘crackpots’, rather disturbing. I’m glad that I am more open-minded than that.

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