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Your view: do pharmacists and homeopathy mix?

Homeopathy pills in bottles

Our snapshot investigation into pharmacies revealed that 13 out of 20 failed to explain that there’s no clinical evidence that homeopathy works. It proved to be a popular starting point for discussion…

‘As soon as you talk about homeopathy, it divides opinion’, said our senior health researcher, Joanna Pearl, in her introduction to our investigation into pharmacists and homeopathy last week.

How right she was! Chrisb1 dared to open up the discussion by putting forward his view on the safety of homeopathy vs prescription medicine:

‘We should ask ourselves why prescription drugs, taken as prescribed in hospitals, are the fourth leading cause of death in the US and Canada, after cancer, heart disease and strokes. They cause about 10,000 deaths a year in Canada and about 106,000 deaths a year, and over two million serious injuries in the US.’

These statistics, and this view, were widely challenged by other commenters, including Paulj:

‘This isn’t an argument for an alternative such has homeopathy that has dubious, highly questionable evidence. Let’s improve evidence-based medicine rather than flee to non-scientific medicines.’

Guy Chapman believes there’s a reason why we have the term ‘alternative’ medicine:

‘A treatment is alternative only because it cannot be shown to work, or more likely it can be shown with good confidence not to (as with homeopathy). If it can be proven to work, it is no longer alternative, it is medicine.’

Should pharmacists sell homeopathy?

Many commenters – like Sophie Gilbert – think our snapshot investigation indicates a bigger problem with pharmacists selling homeopathy

‘Homeopathy belongs to the same realm as astrology and should not be recommended by pharmacists any more that financial advisers should recommend consulting our horoscopes to see if our investments are going to perform well in future.’

David Colquhoun agrees:

‘It is horrifying that pharmacists give such bad advice. Pharmacists are constantly pushing for a greater role in primary care. Their education seems just not to be good enough to take on that role at the moment. I have known some who are very good, but it seems they are still in a minority. I hope they take these revelations very seriously indeed.’

We even had Dr Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma) join the discussion on Twitter (@bengoldacre):

What do pharmacists have to say?

A few days earlier, we published another Convo outlining the wider research into pharmacists’ advice. Karen joined that debate and made a good point about counter staff:

‘It is very difficult to approach some customers regarding their medicines as they tend to see Counter Assistants as ‘shop girls’ and refuse to take any advice given. It is very rare you get a good response when refusing to sell something to someone.

‘We need to remember that it is the counter staff who spend the most time with our patients and as such should be subjected to the same scrutiny as our pharmacists and technicians.’

On Twitter, pharmacist Joseph Bush (@josephbush) went a step further with his suggestion:

New vs old

The discussion on homeopathy went on to question how both alternative and conventional medicines move with the times. Dieseltaylor thinks that conventional medicine often backtracks:

‘I think one of the bugbears I have is that “proper” medicine has quite a few incidents of “we know we are right” and then in the fullness of time we find that in fact the medical fraternity are quite quite wrong. All I wish for is a little less hubris.’

Ned doesn’t think this made homeopathy any more credible, however:

‘Yes, scientific medicine evolves to take account of new evidence. You can’t do that without changing your advice.

‘By contrast, homeopathy is rigidly based on the unsubstantiated theories of a 19th century crackpot. But it makes a lot of money for pharmacists with little risk of them being sued for actually harming patients, (as long as they don’t advise people against going to a doctor for an effective cure).’

So do you think pharmacists should only recommend remedies backed by scientific evidence? So far, voters in our poll are overwhelmingly in favour, with nearly 80% saying that they should. Cast your vote now if you haven’t already, and tell us what you think about homeopathy being sold in pharmacies in the comments below.

Should pharmacists only recommend remedies backed by scientific evidence?

Yes - pharmacists should only recommend remedies backed by science (68%, 715 Votes)

Maybe - as long as pharmacists make clear it's just their personal opinion (17%, 179 Votes)

No - pharmacists should be free to recommend any remedy, including homeopathy (15%, 158 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,052

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I collected a prescription from the local Tesco pharmacy just before it closed for the day and had a quick discussion with the pharmacist. I asked if they stocked homeopathic products and was told that they used to do, but now there were just a few items on the supermarket shelves. That surprised me because I checked the names of one or two possibilities and found them all to be non-homeopathic medicines.

I explained that Which? was concerned that there is no clinical evidence that homeopathic products were effective and asked the pharmacist what he would do if someone enquired about them. He said that homeopathy was highly controversial and some people would not use the sort of drugs I had just been given by his colleague. The gist of the rest of our discussion is that he would inform people but not attempt to change their minds if they wanted homeopathic products. If customers who want these products are like the supporters who have posted here, there is no point attempting to reason with them.

I should point out that the final sentence represents my conclusion rather than what the pharmacist said.

wev says:
19 June 2013

Ben Goldacre on BBC2 Daily Politics said the problem of clinical trials not being published has been here for over 30 years. Clinical trials are more likely to not be published if they have a negative result for a drug. If they show a drug in a good light, they’ll probably be published.

Daily Politics can be watched on BBC iPlayer for the next 7 days.

We’ve: Indeed. And he also has a penetrating critique of the nonsense hat is homeopathy. His excellent book Bad Science covers both, I recommend it.

We’ve rounded up comments about homeopathy from this round up. Come and join the latest debate: https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/homeopathy-and-pharmacists-debate/