One of the most important mechanisms that people have for regulating their own behaviour is feedback from other people. This happens from the day we’re born – babies learn that some behaviours earn a smile so they repeat them; toddlers learn that other behaviours get attention, so they repeat them. As adults we do exactly the same thing – we learn behaviours that make us successful friends, partners or parents based on how people react to us.
This carries over into professional life too, and in some professions is even put into words as codes of conduct, or ethics. We learn what is and is not acceptable by seeing how people respond to our actions.
Well, that’s a lovely little snippet about human behaviour, but what does it have to do with harm caused by homeopathy? Sadly, lots. Homeopaths style themselves as health professionals, meaning people trust and respect them. In other health professions – let’s take conventional doctors as an example – if an individual gives poor advice or commits an act that’s seen as misconduct, there are mechanisms in place to deal with that. They can be sanctioned or struck off, re-educated, suspended, and any number of other things. Crucially, their peers support this process; if a doctor suspects misconduct by another they can act on it, formally or informally. The same is true in other health professions – nurses, pharmacists, you name it.
So surely homeopaths do the same? Well…no.
The Society of Homeopaths exists, and has a code of conduct and ethics. However there’s no requirement whatsoever for a homeopath to be a member of the society, and I couldn’t find anything on their website about disciplinary processes or how to complain about a member. When asked to publicly condemn behaviour that is clearly unacceptable in individuals trusted to give health advice, the society has consistently failed to do so.
But the society doesn’t represent every homeopath, and in any case these are independent people – surely individuals have spoken out about poor behaviour among their peers? I’d like to say yes, but again, the answer’s no.
When Anthony Pinkus was found by BBC reporters to be promoting homeopathic vaccines (after previously being investigated by the General Pharmaceutical Council for similar behaviour), his fellow pharmacists were outraged at what they saw as acts that put patients at risk and brought their profession into disrepute. His fellow homeopaths? Not a peep.
When various homeopaths were found to be promoting homeopathy for the treatment of rape, domestic violence and homosexuality, the general public were rightly angered at the outrageously offensive claims. Their fellow homeopaths gave barely a whimper.
When Penelope Dingle died after suffering months of excruciating pain because her homeopath told her it was all in her head, the coroner’s report was damning. The homeopathic community was oddly silent.
When homeopaths peddle their remedies to incredibly vulnerable people in Africa for the treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS, their peers say nothing about it. However Peter Chappell, a founder member of the Society of Homeopaths is all in favour, and in fact produces his own range of remedies, as well as others for malaria, dengue fever, and goodness knows what else.
When Nelsons in London were found to have such poor manufacturing standards that there was broken glass present on their production line, and one in six vials of remedy actually had no homeopathic ingredient added, the Food and Drug Administration (the American drug regulator) pulled no punches in their report. The UK homeopathic community, of which Nelsons is a part, said nothing.
There are doubtless many, many more examples just like these, but I think I’ve hammered the point home well enough. And I am sure that some homeopaths who read this will be rather offended, because maybe they did oppose these things; but that’s not enough. If homeopaths want to be seen as trustworthy providers of complementary therapies they need to change this pattern, they need to be vocal. Where poor behaviour is evident, they need to shout first and loudest about it, like the pharmacists did with Anthony Pinkus. They need to scream from the rooftops that unethical advice, endangerment of people’s safety is against everything that they stand for, and that an individual who does those things doesn’t represent their community. Even leaving aside the problems regarding lack of efficacy, how else can anyone ever trust that they can visit a homeopath and receive honest, ethical advice?