Monday saw the second round of oral submissions – though the name is a little misleading – it’s actually a question and answer session – no submissions that I could see. It took the same format as the previous session (see blog on Nov 26th) with Rt Hon Mike O’Brien QC MP, Minister of State, Professor David Harper CBE, Chief Scientist, Department of Health, and Professor Kent Woods, Chief Executive, Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency in the hot seat.
Before opening the meeting, The Chair, felt the need to clarify what this committee’s remit actually is. I for one was glad to hear it, because in all the media furor since the last meeting, something had been lost in translation.
The Chair announced, “ I want to put it on record as there seems to be a little confusion about the nature of the work we’re doing. This is not an enquiry into whether homeopathy works or not. It’s an enquiry that follows a series of evidence checks across a number of government departments as to say whether in fact there was any evidence to support the government’s policy towards homeopathy.”
The Chair then opened the meeting and addressed his first question to Minister Mike O’Brien:
“ So does the government have any credible evidence that homeopathy works beyond the placebo effect?”
Subtle difference, no wonder we were all confused.
The meeting went back and forth – Evan Harris flexed his prosecuting muscles again – what he thought was a fellow traveller (the Chief Scientist) ended in disappointment. Dr Harris was pushing hard that it was unethical to do any more Random Controlled Trials (RCTs) since the conclusion in the scientific community was ‘settled’ (homeopathy doesn’t work). Professor Harper seemed to agree but when pressed he clarified his view. “There is a lack of plausibility in the mechanism, but that isn’t to say there shouldn’t be research into like cures like, or molecular memory.” Ouch Evan.
Prof Woods, Chief Executive of the MHRA was necessarily cautious about explaining that his remit is restricted to good manufacturing practice, and he held his own as Harris relentlessly searched for another sound bite to give the media. As far as I could tell he didn’t get one, but we’ll see in the papers tomorrow. Prof Woods concluded that all was well in the world of manufacturing and labeling.
Since this was about how government makes policy, the Minister got a grilling. But the consummate politician stuck to his guns and stressed in many different ways that since funding for homeopathy was already in place, he could not recommend withdrawing it. He took the view that there is a significant body of clinicians who say it works and they and their patients should be allowed access. He mentioned the government has no plans for statutory regulations of non-medical homeopaths as they had put in place the Council for Natural Health Care CNHC) for voluntary regulation but added that the Society of Homeopaths (SOH) was not quite talking to the CNHC. (SOH not ‘quite’ talking to them? What’s up with that?)
Mr Stringer suggested that this lobby of clinicians was having a disproportionate effect on government policy.
A small group of dedicated homeopaths against the weight of conventional medicine? Come on, Mr Stringer purleeez.
Dr Harris raised the anti-malarials issue again as suggestion of harm – and Prof Woods used the same issue to support his regulatory body and its work – remedies can be withdrawn if necessary, and have been.
Asked how much was spent by the NHS on homeopathic “medicines” (everyone was careful to put quotes around medicines used in this context) – the Minister replied; “£152K in a drug budget of £11Billion, so around 0.001%.”
He confessed that overall funding for homeopathy was harder to calculate – but less than £12 Million (a little worrying that he said he took that figure from The Guardian!). Nonetheless, that’s £12 Million from an NHS budget of around £100 Billion…….
Not that I’d support offering something just because it’s cheap, but as the Minister said:
“There is a significant lobby of clinicians who take the view that it works. Should we stop funding it because the majority of other clinicians take the view it doesn’t work at all? I have a problem with that – with the illiberality of it – that personal choice in an area of medical controversy should be completely denied.”
Now that’s a conclusion I can live with.
Mr. Stringer and Dr Harris pressed for NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) to get involved and do some research. The Minister said NICE has other priorities and already has a queue of drugs waiting to be evaluated.
Dr Harris pressed: “If the chairman of NICE asked you?” (Nicely?)
The Minister said “ I would object and ask is that the best thing you can do given the queue of drugs we’re asking you to evaluate. It’s a practical matter.”
A line that was supported by Prof Harper.
Dr Harris had the lion’s share of the questions again and desperately tried to squeak a last one in, but The Chair shut the meeting down and everyone went home.
Watch it courtesy of the British government: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=5257
Things to look out for:
A possible change of heart by the NICE chairman on the need to move homeopathy to the top of the evaluation list.
A flurry of articles condemning the use of homeopathy in AIDS since it’s international AIDS day today.
Note of caution:
Dr Harris if you open your eyes any wider there’s a real risk your eyeballs will fall out.