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18 October 2004

Hopi candles for the worried well

The NHS plan for taxpayers to fund hocus-pocus marks a historic betrayal of science

By Theodore Dalrymple

Everyone – everyone, that is, who is middle class, which is what counts in these matters – knows someone whose mysterious and refractory illness has finally yielded to the ministrations of homoeopathy: or if not homoeopathy, then to crystals, Hopi ear candles or aromatherapy. An age of hypochondriasis is also an age of miracles: and why should miracles be available only to those who can afford to pay for them?

So it is only right and proper, according to the Department of Health, that patients should be able to see the alternative practitioners of their choice at the expense of the taxpayer. Never mind that this will represent a regression from evidence-based medicine to the era of pink pills for pale people. Next month, every GP surgery in the land will have a supply of pamphlets, funded by the DoH and produced by the Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Health: an invincible alliance between bullying bureaucracy and social snobbery; between administrative cynicism and ignorant folly.

There is one sense in which homoeopathy is undoubtedly superior to “orthodox” medicine: it can do no harm, at least actively. Since most conditions are self-limiting and orthodox practitioners are no longer allowed by their code of ethics knowingly to prescribe a placebo, but only to prescribe medications with definite and sometimes dangerous side effects, homoeopathy is superior to orthodox medicine in a large number of cases that will recover anyway.

It should be remembered that homoeopathy, and the ludicrous theory on which it is based, were advanced at a time when orthodox medicine subscribed to a fair share of ludicrous theories itself and used heroic doses of plainly poisonous substances.

Nevertheless, it is from the tradition of orthodox medicine and not that of alternative medicine that the astonishing advances we have seen over the past century have been made. To put the two systems on the same plane is deliberately to reject the whole idea of scientific truth.

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Providing alternative therapies on the NHS is part of the persistent attempt by the government further to debase and demoralise the medical profession. The point of the whole proposal is not to raise the status of alternative medicine, as Prince Charles has no doubt been gulled into believing, but to lower the status of orthodox medicine.

This is because doctors are trusted by the population, while politicians most certainly are not: therefore they, the doctors, represent a danger to the politicians. The people who will pay the price ultimately for the wicked folly of the DoH will be the British people, who will come to be treated by a professional body of uninterested time-servers while their rulers seek first-rate medical treatment elsewhere – that is to say abroad.

I have absolutely no objection to people indulging in colonic irrigation and other such remedies if that is what they want. Good luck to them also if they believe in the healing power of crystals, chakras in the earth and so forth. However, I see no reason why they should expect me, or any other taxpayer, to fork out for their irrational whims.

That people currently pay cash for alternative medicine is one of the great therapeutic advantages it has over NHS medicine: no one likes to admit to having thrown money down the drain, so most people feel better after they have parted with their cash.

No doubt the DoH will present its position on alternative medicine as being broad-minded and socially inclusive. There is another way of looking at it, however: the DoH is embezzling taxpayer’s funds for dark, partially hidden, political purposes.

By all means, let the Prince of Wales spread propaganda for his brand of hocus-pocus; let him touch people for the King’s Evil, if he and they so wish. The revival of the ceremony might even add to the gaiety of the nation.

But medicine is too serious a matter to be left to amateurs such as the DoH.