John Humphrys - homeopathy: a royal error in judgement?

December 15, 2023, 2:23 PM GMT+0

Our new king has enjoyed a pretty good press since he took over back in the summer. There was some mild amusement when he displayed his irritation at the fountain pen that did not obey the royal command after the coronation and some criticism that he used a private jet to attend the COP 28 summit in Dubai, but his speech there was regarded as pretty robust. It was what the Palace announced after he’d returned that aroused the harshest criticism of his judgment: that Dr Michael Dixon has been appointed as head of the royal medical household.

To which most of us would probably ask: so what? The late Queen’s doctor has retired and Dr Dixon is a qualified GP. So long as the King approves of him, what’s the problem? In a nutshell: Dr Dixon believes in complementary and alternative medicine. Specifically homeopathy. And the vast majority of the medical profession regard homeopathy as rubbish. Not just rubbish but dangerous and extremely expensive rubbish. King Charles clearly does not and has made that clear many times. His appointment of Dr Dixon, they say, sends entirely the wrong message. Do you agree?

The basis of homeopathy is that we can cure ourselves of many illnesses if we swallow some of whatever it is that caused that illness in the first place. And the reason that doesn’t make us ever more ill is that what we swallow has been diluted to such an extent that not a single molecule remains. It really is the equivalent of a drop in an ocean. The harmful molecules no longer exist. But, according to homeopaths, the memory of them remains and that’s enough to cure us.

Sceptics like Oliver Kamm, a former Times Leader writer, say that is ‘utter twaddle lacking any evidential basis.’ He writes that the King ‘is free to babble absurdities behind closed doors, and even to accept such bogus remedies for himself, but that’s a matter for him and his personal physician. Dr Dixon’s is a public position, however, not a private one. And the Palace inadvertently undermined it by citing the King’s long-expressed view that homeopathy is not about rejecting conventional medicines in favour of other treatments: the term ‘complementary’ medicine means precisely what it says’.

Dr Mark Porter is among the overwhelming majority of qualified medics who agree with that. He writes:

‘Homeopathic remedies are tailored to the individual, so two people with the same problem may end up on different treatments, but the basic principle is to treat like with like. Rather than suppress the signs and symptoms of disease, homeopaths will suggest remedies that induce those symptoms in healthy people. So if you have a runny nose and watery red eyes in the hay fever season, you might be offered Allium cepa (an onion extract) rather than be advised to buy an antihistamine.’

And as for the notion that treating like with like can cure the disease, Dr Porter believes it flies in the face of medical practise. It makes no sense, he says, that a liquid can contain an imprint or memory of the disease by shaking it enough – a process called ‘potentiation’.

But should we accept the ‘makes no sense’ attack on homeopathy even if it comes from a qualified and experienced doctor? After all, if we had told our ancient ancestors that it would be possible to split an atom and create vast amounts of energy or that we could fly to the moon or carry in our pockets a gadget that contains more information than every library on the planet would they not have argued: ‘It makes no sense’?

Surely the question must be whether it works. Overwhelmingly the medical and scientific community has reached the conclusion that it doesn’t.

In 2010 the House of Commons science and technology committee questioned the evidence base for provision of complementary medicine on the NHS, and in 2017 NHS England withdrew all funding for homeopathy, and directed GPs and hospitals to stop offering it. The British Homeopathy Association challenged the decision in the High Court in 2018, but lost. Four of the five NHS homeopathic hospitals (London, Bristol, Liverpool and Tunbridge Wells) are now closed or no longer offer homeopathy.

There is one undeniable fact: the greatest medical advances throughout modern history have been based on science – most recently an empirical process of double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. The scientists make the point that alternative forms of medicine are based on what the patient ‘feels’. But supporters of alternative medical treatments argue that ‘feelings’ can be crucial to medical outcomes. After all, they point out, in one clinical trial after another the so-called ‘placebo effect’ proves that if we believe we have been given a drug we may very well respond to its effect even though it was no more than a sugar pill.

It's also true that many of us are profoundly sceptical of ‘drugs’ for anything other than the most serious or even life-threatening illnesses. You need only pop into one of a thousand health food shops or indeed large pharmacists to see the vast range of pills and potions that promise relief from all manner of conditions. Or vitamin pills and capsules that many scientists will say are a waste of money, but which we are utterly convinced keep us healthy and relatively free from all manner of aches and pains.

I am one of those extremely fortunate individuals who struggles to remember when I last had a cold and I can’t remember ever having had the flu. Is that just the luck of the draw or is it because I have been taking zinc pills since I was a young man and became friendly with a professor of chemistry who persuaded me that zinc was crucial to our wellbeing? There is, of course, no way of proving it either way.

I have a close friend who produces wonderful organic cheese and was one of the pioneers of the organic farming movement half a century ago. He has no doubt about the value of complementary medicine – not just for himself and his family but for his cows too. He agrees that the ‘placebo effect’ cannot be used to dismiss its effectiveness when it comes to sick animals for the entirely obvious reason that they do not know whether they are being given a scientifically-proven drug or just a tasty morsel.

Many vets who use alternative methods say the same about the treatments they prescribe for the dogs and cats their customers bring to them.

But the sceptics say that proves nothing – partly because there is no way of knowing whether or not that they might have recovered from their ailment without any treatment. Some even say the pets’ owners themselves can be susceptible to the placebo effect. The animal cannot speak for itself, so it’s often the owner’s assessment as to whether Fido seems to be ‘getting better’.

Dr Porter makes the point that, in one sense at least, there is a plus side: ‘Unlike conventional medicines homeopathic remedies are harmless since there is nothing in them other than water, alcohol and/or fillers if taken in tablet form. And, frankly, I don’t care how my patients get better as long as they do. If they think a remedy has fixed their aches and pains or cold symptoms, that’s fine with me. Just don’t expect me to recommend homeopathy, or the NHS to pay for it.’

But he adds this important caveat: ‘While vets tend to use homeopathy as a supplement to conventional treatment, some practitioners advocate it as a substitute for modern medicines such as vaccines, heart pills and antibiotics. It is not and using it as such could have serious repercussions.’

And that, he says, brings him back to King Charles: ‘If the King wants a homeopathic GP as his doctor, so be it. My only concern is that the appointment could be the thin end of a wedge he hopes to drive into NHS policy. What happens in the royal household should stay in the royal household.’

Do you agree or do you take the view that scientists and doctors are just defending their own territory? They would say that wouldn’t they? After all, they could hardly defend a form of medicine that, in many cases, directly opposes their own practises and principles.

Have you ever used homeopathy or any form of alternative treatment. And if you have… did it work?

Do let me know.

Explore more data & articles