This year has not been a good year for homeopathy. There have been many blows to the industry in the form of more research finding it ineffective, position statements from organisations of health practitioners discouraging its use, and successful complaints to regulatory authorities. And this trend shows no signs of abating.
In March, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published their Statement on Homeopathy, following a rigorous review of the evidence encompassing over 50 systematic reviews. The conclusion was clear:
there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.
Statement on Homeopathy – National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia)
Most organisations of medical professionals have codes of ethics that make it clear prescribing or selling treatments which are not supported by evidence is unethical. Putting two and two together, these ethical standards and the clear findings of the NHMRC have prompted the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) to publish a position statement on homeopathy:
The RACGP supports the use of evidence-based medicine, in which current research information is used as the basis for clinical decision-making.
In light of strong evidence to confirm that homeopathy has no effect beyond that of placebo as a treatment for various clinical conditions, the position of the RACGP is:
- Medical practitioners should not practice homeopathy, refer patients to homeopathic practitioners, or recommend homeopathic products to their patients.
- Pharmacists should not sell, recommend, or support the use of homeopathic products.
- Homeopathic alternatives should not be used in place of conventional immunisation.
- Private health insurers should not supply rebates for or otherwise support homeopathic services or products
Position statement: homeopathy – Royal Australian College of General Practitioners
Following this, in an interview with Radio New Zealand the chair of the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA), Dr Stephen Child, made the NZMA’s position clear:
Susie Ferguson: So Australian doctors being told not to be prescribing this, and they should come off the shelves as well so people couldn’t even buy them over the counter. Would you support that happening here?
Dr Stephen Child: Well yes, it’s an ineffective treatment. It’s basically giving a glass of water or a sugar pill to patients, and I think you would consider that unethical if I gave you a sugar pill and charged you eighty dollars for that.
Homeopathy has never been supported by evidence, but the recent findings from the NHMRC have strengthened the scientific consensus and allowed many organisations to take a stronger stance against it.
When there is also a clear ethical mandate not to promote or provide healthcare that is not supported by evidence, all it takes to put two and two together is a little courage.
Now, Kingsley Village Pharmacy in Australia is paving the way, stating that their “Homeopathic products [are] going in the bin”:
The owner of Kingsley Village Pharmacy, pharmacist Grant McGill, has explained why he made this decision:
I’ve never promoted or recommended these products but I’ve accepted them passively and I felt a bit hypocritical having them on the shelves.
I operate a bit differently to corporate chains and believe a pharmacy should be professional rather than a place selling a lot of cosmetics.
If someone comes in with sleep problems, I will look at what is known to help and address things like sleep hygiene issues, rather than recommending flower essences.
Pharmacist bins ‘crap’ homeopathic products – The West Australian
When the Twitter account for the pharmacy was asked if they thought their customers would notice or care about the change, they said:
A tweet from Grant McGill echoed the same sentiment as the reason for this change:
When I had an complaint upheld against an Auckland Pharmacy for a misleading display stand for the homeopathic product No-Jet-Lag, that pharmacy promised to remove the product from sale and I hoped that New Zealand pharmacists would follow their example.
But it isn’t feasible for me to complain about each and every homeopathic product sold in a New Zealand pharmacy (although that hasn’t stopped me complaining about some). New Zealand pharmacists need to follow Kingsley Village Pharmacy’s example and remove the products not because complaints have been upheld, but because there’s no evidence they work so it’s clearly the ethical thing to do.
The Pharmacy Council of New Zealand is the body legally responsible under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act for setting standards of ethical conduct to be observed by pharmacists on this side of the Tasman. To this end, they have published a Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics. Section 6.9 of this code is very clear when it comes to pharmacists’ ethical responsibilities surrounding evidence-based healthcare:
YOU MUST:… Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy
Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics – Pharmacy Council of New Zealand
Despite this, as mentioned in the Radio New Zealand interview with Dr Stephen Child from the NZMA, “In New Zealand, many pharmacies stock a range of homeopathic treatments”. When New Zealand pharmacists have been challenged on this point, their defences have ranged from bizarre misunderstandings of the evidence (e.g. “Auckland pharmacist Martin Harris says there is good evidence for homeopathy in the field of quantum physics”) to arguments that patient choice overrides their ethical responsibility:
But homeopathy is part of a holistic approach to healthcare, according to Auckland pharmacist Caleb Townsend, whose Lincoln Mall Pharmacy has qualified homeopaths onsite.
There is not one system that suits all people, Mr Townsend says in an email.
“Homeopathy is seen at this pharmacy as complementary to conventional medicine, in much the same way as acupuncture, vitamins and herbs are.”
Many patients believe homeopathy has been of benefit and they should be given the freedom to choose it if they want, he says.
“We have not yet become a society where cultural beliefs are legislated out of existence.”
Pharmacists Support Patient Choice with Homeopathy – Pharmacy Today
Dr Child provided a response to this line of argument in his interview:
Well, again as I say they argue that it’s mainly free trade basically, or a free market, so if people are willing to pay the money, and they think it works, then what are they doing that’s wrong?
And my problem with that argument though is to say that if they are telling the patient that it works then they are misleading in their advertising and even the Consumer Guarantee Act that it’s not allowed to mislead the consumer.
Second of all there’s an imbalance of a relationship when you come in to see a health practitioner and you’re the patient.
And thirdly when you’re suffering and you’re unwell you’re possibly not in a position to make an informed, balanced decision as a consumer. So I’m not even sure the free market argument would suggest that it would be legitimate practice.
Dr Stephen Child, Doctors Told to Stop Prescribing Homeopathic Products – Radio NZ
The Society for Science Based Healthcare has also been in touch with Green Cross Health, an umbrella organisation that owns brands such as Unichem and Life Pharmacy and represents over 300 New Zealand pharmacies, to ask if they have a commitment to uphold section 6.9 of the Pharmacy Council’s code of ethics. Despite following up multiple times, the closest thing to a direct answer Green Cross Health has given to this question is:
While we support best practice we are also supportive of consumer choice.
Green Cross Health
The remaining defence of this practice is that pharmacists do more than provide healthcare, they also have to run a business. Following his Radio NZ interview, Dr Child alluded to this in an article from Pharmacy Today following his Radio NZ interview:
“Medically, it’s unethical to provide a treatment that’s not proven,” Dr Child says.
However, he has stopped short of telling pharmacies not to sell homeopathic products.
“It’s not really appropriate, I believe, for the medical profession to tell pharmacies how to run their business and how to act.”
Pharmacies have a difficult balance between providing healthcare and running a business, Dr Child says.
“It must be very difficult because they are a business as well.”
Homeopathy discredited again on both sides of the Tasman – Pharmacy Today
There is a range of behaviours among New Zealand pharmacies when it comes to promotion of homeopathy. Some few pharmacists refuse to sell the products at all, whereas many stock them but might not actively promote or recommend them. On the extreme end of this ethical scale, there are pharmacies like Lincoln Mall Pharmacy in Auckland, which promotes “homeopathic consultations” from homeopaths within the pharmacy, and Simillimum Pharmacy in Wellington, which describes itself as a “homeopathic pharmacy”.
The fact that there are some pharmacists who operate without relying on profits from selling homeopathic products indicates that it is entirely possible. Those pharmacists who passively sell them likely don’t rely on the profits made from those products as the difference between financial success and failure, so I’d hope they wouldn’t use higher profits as a justification for breaching their ethical obligations.
If any pharmacy has got to the level where their business would fail financially were it not for homeopathic products and services that they sell, then their business practices would blatantly violate their ethical responsibilities. I should think the risk of financial failure in a case like this should certainly not be an acceptable excuse for such unethical conduct.
Kingsley Village Pharmacy in Australia has set a great example for all pharmacists, having the courage to take a stand on ethics and stop selling homeopathic products. New Zealand pharmacists who currently have them on their shelves should follow in these footsteps.
To borrow Grant McGill’s words, pharmacists need to stand up for patient outcomes.