‘Complementary and alternative medicine’

Humanists support scientists and researchers in their quest for knowledge and the improvement of human health and wellbeing. We believe that claims made about the medical benefits and efficacy of all medicines and medical treatments should be supported by a strong body of scientific evidence derived from trial data.

Therefore, we reject the endorsement of so-called ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ (‘CAM’) for which there has been little, inconsistent, or no evidence provided. Examples of this include homeopathy and reiki.

We oppose the state providing funding for such treatments and believe that pharmacists and other organisations who sell or promote CAM products should have a duty to make clear that there is no scientific or clinical evidence base to support their efficacy. We support wider public health campaigns that are strongly supported by scientific evidence, such as school vaccinations, adding fluoride to tap water, and adding folic acid to flour.

In depth

There are a wide variety of treatments that fall within the category of CAM, most notably homeopathy (a system which is based on treating the individual with highly diluted substances), acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, reiki, and herbalism. Much scientific evidence has been put forward refuting the claims about the medical efficacy of these treatments. Under the scrutiny of scientific trials these ‘remedies’ have consistently been shown to have no beneficial effect above that of a placebo, there is limited evidence of their efficacy, or they have not established substantial efficacy for all ailments that they claim to treat. Therefore, to claim that any of these are a ‘cure’ or ‘effective’ (particularly in the context of the potential harms outlined in what follows) is unethical.

Although bodies exist to regulate and accredit some CAM practitioners, it remains a largely unregulated area of medicine and not all such remedies have  been thoroughly tested for their safety, potentially putting vulnerable people at risk. Furthermore, by encouraging patients to abandon conventional medicines on which their health depends, proponents of CAM remedies may cause long-term, severe or even fatal damage to patients’ health.

It is our position that CAM treatments should not be funded by the state, and that no further public money should be spent researching such treatments when the evidence that they work no better than a placebo is overwhelming. We believe that pharmacists and other organisations who sell or promote CAM products should have a duty to make clear that there is no scientific or clinical evidence base to support their efficacy. We support the guidelines issued by the Advertising Standards Authority and the Committees on Advertising Practice, which prohibit CAM proponents from making false claims about their products when advertising. We believe that prescribing or promoting CAM remedies is not a charitable activity and organisations that do this should not be able to register as charities.

Campaign against state-funded homeopathy 

Although there are numerous types of CAM, our campaign has largely focused on ending state funding for homeopathic treatments. We work closely on this campaign with the Good Thinking Society, set up by our patron Dr Simon Singh.

In February 2010, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee produced a report on the available evidence regarding homeopathy. It concluded that ‘The Government’s position on homeopathy is confused. On the one hand, it accepts that homeopathy is a placebo treatment. This is an evidence-based view. On the other hand, it funds homeopathy on the NHS without taking a view on the ethics of providing placebo treatments. We argue that this undermines the relationship between NHS doctors and their patients, reduces real patient choice and puts patients’ health at risk. The Government should stop allowing the funding of homeopathy on the NHS.’

In 2017, in response to campaigning from us and Good Thinking, NHS England recommended not only that all NHS prescriptions for homeopathic treatments should end, but that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care should add homeopathy to the blacklist of treatments not to be offered at all on the NHS.

In response to this recommendation, the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (formerly the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital) announced that it will stop providing NHS-funded homeopathic treatments.

This means that there are currently no longer any areas of the NHS in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland that still routinely provide homeopathic treatments. In Scotland, homeopathy spending is still paid for by the state and we campaign alongside Good Thinking Society and our sister charity Humanist Society Scotland to see this end.

Recent work for evidence-based medicine

  • In 2017, we responded to a consultation held by NHS England calling for a end to prescriptions for several treatments including all homeopathic and herbal treatments. NHS England subsequently recommend that CCGs should no longer prescribe either of these treatments to new patients and to facilitate their removal from current patients. Additionally, they recommended that homeopathy by added to the NHS’s blacklist.
  • In 2017, we launched a petition calling upon the then- Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt to add homeopathy to the NHS blacklist in accordance with NHS England’s recommendation.
  • In 2018, we responded to a joint consultation held by the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) for Bristol, North Somerset, and South Gloucestershire, calling for an end to the funding of homeopathic treatments on the NHS. The CCGs subsequently removed these treatments from routine care. In 2017, we submitted a response to a consultation by the Charity Commission on the registration of organisations that use or promote CAM remedies as charities, calling for higher standards of evidence to be applied to organisations that promote CAM.

Get involved

Humanists UK consults with its members on complementary and alternative medicine as one of many scientific and ethical issues where humanists take a positive, evidence-led stance.

You can research and take up these issues with your MP and/or local authority, or write to a newspaper.

You can support Humanists UK campaigns by becoming a member. Campaigns cost money – quite a lot of money – and we need your financial support. Instead or in addition, you can make a donation to Humanists UK.