In Belgium, only doctors, dentists, and midwives may prescribe homeopathic potions. This appears to be the case since 1998, although the relevant laws are not limited to homeopathy – they state only that the above medical professionals are the only ones allowed to practice medicine, including alternative medicine.
About 10% of Belgium doctors prescribe homeopathy, and about 25% of the population use it.
It appears, however, that this is about to change. The Cola-law, which is not yet fully in effect, provides for the creation of various “chambers” for regulating homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and other “practitioners of non-conventional medicine.”. I could not find information on when the Cola-law will fully go into effect.
It is interesting that this is happening at the same time that the Belgium government commissioned an investigation into the scientific evidence for homeopathy. The review concluded that homeopathy does not work.
That is the only conclusion that any objective scientist can come to after exploring the available evidence. It is clear that homeopathy does not work, even without considering the extreme scientific implausibility of homeopathy – choosing fanciful remedies based on superstitious notions and then diluting them out of existence.
The Belgium report came to the same conclusion as a similar UK government report – Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy. They also found the evidence overwhelmingly shows that homeopathy has no effects beyond placebo – it doesn’t work. They concluded:
“By providing homeopathy on the NHS and allowing MHRA licensing of products which subsequently appear on pharmacy shelves, the Government runs the risk of endorsing homeopathy as an efficacious system of medicine. To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products.”
Unfortunately, the British government decided not to follow these recommendation – to not have evidence-based policy, but rather to betray the trust of the British people by continuing to promote expensive placebos as if they were real medicine, and to support an industry based on lies and pseudoscience.
The Belgium government also finds itself is the same situation. They acknowledge:
“According to the Order of Physicians code of conduct, physicians are expected to practise medicine according to the current knowledge of scientific medicine. On the other hand, physicians have a freedom of therapy, so they can freely practise CAM if they bring no harm to their patients.”
So – physicians are expected to practice science-based medicine, unless they don’t want to, as long as they label their unscientific practice “CAM.”
It is statements like these that betray the blatant double -standard of alternative medicine (CAM). In fact CAM exists to create that double-standard. Regular medicine needs to be science-based. Alternative medicine does not have to be – evidence is irrelevant, ethics are flexible, and professionalism is unnecessary.
Homeopathy has been around for over 200 years. In that time none of its basic principles have been supported by science, in fact they increasingly run counter to scientific knowledge. We now also have decades of clinical trials of homeopathy with thousands of studies – and will all that research homeopathy has not been demonstrated to work for any single indication.
The only scientifically defensible statements with regard to homeopathy are that homeopathy cannot possibly work, and in fact homeopathy does not work.
Homeopaths, try their best to deny this undeniable evidence. They do so by simply dismissing it in favor of their personal anecdotal experience. They cherry pick studies, rely on poor quality studies, and rely upon low-grade evidence (such as historical cases that cannot possibly be verified).
Homeopathy is therefore a touchstone with respect to government integrity. Governments are faced with a system of medicine that is a complete sham. Belgium and the UK, in fact, have produced reviews of the evidence that come to that unavoidable conclusion. Those governments are now faced with a dilemma – do they follow the evidence and do what is best for their citizens, or do they cave to industry interests, popular opinion, and simple ignorance?
The UK report also concluded:
“It is unacceptable for the MHRA to license placebo products—in this case sugar pills—conferring upon them some of the status of medicines. Even if medical claims on labels are prohibited, the MHRA’s licensing itself lends direct credibility to a product. Licensing paves the way for retail in pharmacies and consequently the patient’s view of the credibility of homeopathy may be further enhanced. We conclude that it is time to break this chain and, as the licensing regimes operated by the MHRA fail the Evidence Check, the MHRA should withdraw its discrete licensing schemes for homeopathic products.”
I agree – it is unacceptable. Yet no government as far as I know has done the right thing, called homeopathy what it is, a fraud, and at the very least remove all government support, funding, and legitimacy.
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.