Homeopathic Harms Vol 7: Professional Ethics

In February 2013, my friend @EBMScientist and I delivered a Newcastle Skeptics in the Pub talk entitled Homeopathy: Where's The Harm? As a follow up to this, we decided to write a series of blog posts expanding on a number of points we covered in the talk:

"Ethics is the science of morals, or moral philosophy. The principles, written or unwritten, that are accepted in any profession as the basis for proper behaviour are the ethics of the profession" -Dale and Appelbe's Pharmacy Law and Ethics

As you'll know by now, I'm a pharmacist. And as such, I have to be registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) to practice in the UK. I'm therefore governed by the GPhC, and in particular their code of conduct, ethics and performance, which has seven main points:

  1. Make patients your first concern

  2. Use your professional judgement in the interests of patients and the public

  3. Show respect for others

  4. Encourage patients and the public to participate in decisions about their care

  5. Develop your professional knowledge and competence

  6. Be honest and trustworthy

  7. Take responsibility for your working practices.

If I-or any of my colleagues- were to act against this code of ethics, we could be held to account by our regulator and reprimanded accordingly. Other healthcare professionals- Doctors, nurses etc- all have similar codes of conduct produced by their regulatory bodies. They all have one thing in common- that the patient is central to everything you do, and if a member steps outside this code of conduct, there is a clear and organized route through which complaints or concerns can be raised. This is as it should be: healthcare professionals have the lives of patients in their hands, and need to be held to account if anything goes wrong. As I've written before in this series, homeopaths don't have to register with a regulatory body and anyone can set themselves up as a homeopath with no training whatsoever. Whilst some 'professional' bodies exist in the UK, they have no regulatory powers so are unable to reprimand anyone if they receive a complaint.

Health care professionals who also practice homeopathy still have a duty to ensure that they abide by their regulatory body's code of ethics. In my opinion, however, it is very difficult to reconcile some of the clear guidance with homeopathic principles. Let's take a look at what I mean, using some selected points from the  the first two standards of the  GPhC's Code of Ethics July 2012 as a guide. (I'll cover the rest of the points in another post)

1. Make Patients Your First Concern
Under this heading, the GPhC states that we must "Make sure the services you provide are safe and of acceptable quality". Given the lack of high quality information that homeopathy works, we are unable to guarantee that such a service is of acceptable quality. You'll also know if you've read the rest of this series of blog posts that there is a lack of evidence regarding the harms- both direct and indirect- of homeopathy- so how could we guarantee that it is safe?

2. Use Your Professional Judgement In the Interests of Patients and The Public
There are a couple of relevant points here. firstly we are told that we need to make sure that professional judgement is not affected by personal or organizational interests or incentives. If you're going to charge for a homeopathic service on the side of your usual practice, then there is already a clear personal incentive to promote homeopathy.  We can minimize the possibility of such things affecting our professional judgement by making sure that we use evidence to guide treatment decisions wherever we can: evidence-based medicine is not perfect, but its the most objective method we have at the moment. And, as you'll know, there is no good evidence at all that homeopathy works. 

We are also advised to:

 "Be prepared to challenge the judgement of your colleagues and other professionals if you have reason to believe that their decisions could affect the safety or care of others"

I myself-and other pharmacists-have done this: I've spoken out about Tony Pinkus, for example, a pharmacist who endangers patients' lives by promoting unlicensed homeopathic vaccines or sugar pills to prevent malaria. In Nancy's latest blog post, she covered some of this, and I know Adam at Dianthus Med has also been discussing this point on twitter and his blog lately. Its clear-from our own professional guidance-that where patient safety is in danger, we do not protect our own- we need to report, speak out, and denounce those amongst our colleagues who let the profession down.

Homeopaths, on the other hand, seem to have no such obligation. We've been struggling to think of one single example of where homeopaths have spoken out against other homeopaths where patient safety has been endangered. In a conversation on twitter, for example, no homeopath would say that it was inappropriate for a homeopath to have said that a homeopathic remedy could have saved someone who died due to injuries sustained in a horrific gang-rape and disembowelment.  I recently asked some homeopaths on Twitter whether they would speak out against a colleague who put patients in danger. The answer I received from one was shocking:

"When its so easy 2 wink at 1's own sins, seems impossible 2 find judge orjury before whom 2arraign the 1st law breaker. KENT" (sic)- @22VenkateshN

Admittedly this particular homeopath that responded (he was the only one) has a reputation for obfuscation, but this reply seems to suggest that no, he wouldn't report, in case someone did similar to him. I tried to clarify : "so to clarify: you wouldn't speak out in case someone else did the same to you? A yes or no would suffice, thank you". The reply:

"some questions can't be replied with a simple 'yes or no'. for example_ 'are you still mad ?'"- @22VenkateshN


I'm not sure what he is trying to imply by asking about being mad, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt and ignore any insinuations he might have been trying to make. What is staggering is the reluctance to admit that he would put patient care first and report a fellow homeopath in a situation. As a health care professional-and a good person- the code of ethics  becomes deeply ingrained in your being. Its second nature- and pretty obvious- that you would put the needs of a patient first. I persisted further,  trying to make it easy for him to agree that you would report a colleague: "It's very easy, if you work under clear ethical guidance. homeopaths do have that, right?: patient safety comes first: therefore yes, you would report and denounce a colleague who endangered it." Again, the reply astounds:

"Its not that easy, every one accusing everyone else would result. That's why I tweeted the appropriate observations of Kent"- @22VenkateshN

Wow. So it would seem- on the basis of this sort of conversation and the complete radio silence from any other homeopaths- that no, they wouldn't report or denounce a fellow homeopath because some sort of petty slanging match would ensue. Instead of a clear referral process to deal with complaints, accusations would be flying all over the shop- and one very, very important aspect gets forgotten: patient safety. 

I'd love to be proved wrong here. I'd love to think that medical homeopaths or pharmacists who also practice homeopathy would do otherwise, in accordance with their code of ethics. But I'm currently deafened by their silence. If I were one of the more professional, caring homeopaths who really did want to do the best for their patients, I would be utterly horrified and disgusted by some of the claims and actions of others, and I'd want to-nay I'd feel obliged to- speak out against them for the good of my own practice. I'd be embarrassed to be associated with them.

So here's your chance, homeopaths. Speak up against bad practice and drown out the previous deafening silence. Go right ahead: I'm listening intently. And while you're at it, please do take a few minutes out to respond to Adam's Challenge to the Society of Homeopaths too