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Health board’s decision to stop funding homeopathy is upheld by judicial review

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h4797 (Published 08 September 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4797
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1The BMJ

A senior judge has decisively rejected a patient’s legal challenge to Lothian Health Board’s decision to stop funding homeopathy services on the NHS.

Homeopathy has been available in parts of the United Kingdom since the health service was founded in 1948, and the NHS still spends £3m to £5m (€4.1m to €6.8m; $4.6m to $7.6m) a year on the treatment, said the Good Thinking Society, which campaigns for an end to NHS funding of homeopathy (goodthinkingsociety.org).

In the light of studies showing homeopathy to be no better than placebo, Lothian Health Board decided to stop providing homeopathy services from April 2014 and to stop referring patients to Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital. It decided to reinvest the funds in areas such as chronic pain, palliative services, and chronic fatigue services.

But Honor Watt, 74, who is disabled and takes homeopathic medicines for arthritis and anxiety, applied to the Court of Session in Edinburgh for a judicial review of the decision. She argued that the board, in its consultation on the issue, had not paid due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination on the grounds of disability, which it was required to do as a public body.

But Lord Uist, the judge who heard the case, said that it was clear to him that the board had properly focused on its public sector equality duty. Even if he considered that it had failed in this duty he would still have rejected the challenge, he said.

He added, “It is plain that the board, as it was entitled to do, accepted the view that there was no scientific evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy and that funding for it was a waste of the limited funds at its disposal.

“In these circumstances the countervailing factor in this case was so powerful, indeed overwhelming, that no decision other than the one taken by the board was conceivable. A different decision, namely, to continue spending money on a service whose efficacy was not established, would have been unreasonable.”

Watt no longer has access to a local homeopathic practitioner but still receives homeopathic medicines, the judge noted.

The strongly worded judgment is likely to discourage challenges to a growing number of NHS bodies that decide to stop funding homeopathy services. The British Homeopathic Association described the ruling as a “major blow,” adding that “Lord Uist appears to have made a judgment on the efficacy of homeopathy, which throws into question Lord Uist’s focus and objectivity in making his final judgment.”

One clinical commissioning group, Liverpool, had decided to continue its £30 000 a year funding for homeopathy but agreed to consult again and retake its decision after the Good Thinking Society threatened to apply for judicial review in the High Court. Michael Marshall, the society’s project director, said, “This is money which can be better spent elsewhere on treatments which actually help people.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4797

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