Pat-Trip Dispenser

I’m not sure whether this is one of those issues that flares up for a short period of time, gets everyone talking, and then burns itself out, or whether the Science and Technology Select Committee’s report this week on homeopathy is actually the start of something. The Select Committee has called for the Government to stop NHS funding for homeopathic treatment, as there is no scientific proof of its effectiveness. This is of particular local significance, as Bristol Homeopathic Hospital receives £260,000 in annual funding from the NHS.

This follows fast in the footsteps of a recent stunt by the anti-homeopathy campaign, 10:23, which is trying to persuade Boots to stop ‘lending legitimacy to nonsense’ by stocking homeopathic medicines. (See www.1023.org.uk for more).

The Select Committee report in itself doesn’t mean that anything much is going to happen. The Government will now be working on its response, which will include an indication of whether or not the Government is inclined to act upon any or all of the recommendations. Some, though not all, Select Committee reports are then debated in Parliament, usually in Westminster Hall on a Thursday afternoon. There’s not time in the parliamentary calendar to do them all, so it’s the Committee members who decide which ones are debated. And even then, there’s no binding obligation on the Government to act, apart from continued pressure from the Committee and other interested parties.

However…. there is of course the small matter of a General Election looming upon the horizon so I’m not sure whether we will get to see the Government’s response to the S+T Committee’s report before Parliament is dissolved. I’ve told the constituent who came to see me today on a lobby of parliament that I will try to find out. I suspect it will be lost in the deluge, and it will be autumn, once the new Select Committees are established and Parliament gets back to normal, before it’s revisited. I assume that if the Government hasn’t responded before the election, the new Government (by which I mean the newly-constituted Government, not necessarily a Government of a different political hue) will not be under any obligation to do so, so it might be back to square one for the Committee.

The constituent who came to see me today swears by homeopathy, and is also a supporter of anthroposophical medicine; apparently the Helios clinic in Bristol, which is also a conventional GPs surgery, is one of only half a dozen or so in the country. He presents this as a matter of personal choice: if it works for him, who are we to deny him the right to such treatment?

Would be interested to know what people think… In particular, if some people swear by the benefits of homeopathy – people who are paying their taxes the same as everyone else – do we have the right to deny them the NHS service of their choice? Do we tell them that they’re wrong, and science is right, even if they swear the opposite to be true? In some ways the argument that the NHS should be responsive to what patients want, not what clinicians/ bureaucrats decide, is an attractive one. If someone with terminal cancer loathes the idea of chemotherapy, and wants to try mistletoe instead (see the wiki link for anthroposophy), then who are we to dictate their choices?

But then I recall the cases I’ve fought on behalf of constituents with breast cancer, kidney cancer, and macular degeneration, who’ve been told by NICE that their drugs do not meet the cost-benefit-analysis test and will no longer be provided on the NHS. And the constituents who were denied fertility treatment because the odds were too low and the course of treatment too expensive. And all the other pressures on the NHS. It can’t just be whatever people want, but what is the best use of public money. And then the question is, of course, who decides that? The scientists? Or the public?

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