Experts call for end to alternative health cover
LARA BRADLEY THOUSANDS of Irish people firmly believe that swallowing an inert tablet or drinking water said to possess the memory of a substance it once came into contact with will cure them of their ills.
So firmly do they believe this they are willing to entrust their children's health into the hands of those who practise this mystical art and will happily pay for products they know contain not one molecule of an active ingredient.
Last week they were proved wrong. Homeopathy simply does not work. Any debate about its efficiency is redundant and the time for further study of the subject is over.
This was the conclusion of leading scientific journal The Lancet after a Swiss/British review of 110 separate trials found no convincing evidence that the treatment worked any better than a placebo.
Now Irish psychologists and academics say health insurers should remove the treatment from the medical services they cover. And they called on the Government to demand high standards of proof before legitimising alternative health practitioners by regulating the industry.
A national working group set up two years ago to advise the Government on regulation of complementary and alternative therapies is due to report by the end of the year. But critics say the recommendations are likely to be "weak" at best, as nine of the 14-member group are either alternative practitioners themselves or representatives of alternative therapy organisations.
Lecturer in Health Psychology at NUI Galway Dr Brian Hughes said: "There are three possible models of regulation. The first is prohibition, which will probably not sit to well with a lot of people. The second is that the therapies must do as medicines must and demonstrate a benefit - not just that they pose no danger. And the third is that qualifications are monitored to ensure national standards.
"I suspect the option proposed will be the third which is the most liberal. It will mean groups of peers are brought together to approve one another. This massive industry should be regulated on the basis of being able to prove a demonstrable therapeutic effect."
Clinical psychologist and founder of the Irish Skeptics Society Paul O'Donoghue agrees: "The practitioners will be policed by their own bodies. All the Government will do by registering them is legitimise their quackery.."
He also said: "It is scandalous that the money I pay to my insurer is spent on homeopathy and other quackery. The insurers will provide what their members demand. It is the same with pharmacists who sell homeopathy products and magnets, which are supposed to stop your mobile from frying your brain."
Bupa Ireland has provided cover for homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractory and osteopathy since 1997 and last year reflexology was added to the list. The benefits have proved enormously popular.
Director of Health Service Contracts Ann Broekhoven said: "We do not dispute what The Lancet says, but a huge number of doctors in Ireland now use homeopathy and physiotherapists are using acupuncture.
"We don't cover all practitioners, just those who are members of the most reputable associations with strong training programmes and high ethical standards and disciplinary procedures.
Alternative health advocate and author of What Works, What Doesn't Pat Thomas dismissed The Lancet's study. She said: "Medical journals are prone to fads and they say one thing one week and another the next which they consider is in the interest of balance. There is good evidence that homeopathy works and no question that all alternative therapies work to some extent."