Homeopathic medicines will escape an NHS prescribing ban even though the Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies has dismissed the treatments as ‘rubbish’ and a waste of taxpayers money.
Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, has previously voiced his support for the controversial treatments and even asked Dame Sally to commision a review of evidence into their efficacy.
It is estimated that NHS spends around £4 million a year on homeopathic treatments, yet although the health service vowed this week to clamp down on the prescribing of ‘ineffective, unnecessary, inappropriate or unsafe’ treatments, homeopathy was not included.
Sandra Gidley, chairwoman of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: "We are surprised that homeopathy, which has no scientific evidence of effectiveness, is not on the list for review.
"We are in agreement with NHS England that products with low or no clinical evidence of effectiveness should be reviewed with urgency.”
Supporters claim that homeopathy can treat everything from depression to hay fever, the theory being that substances that produce the symptoms of an ailment can cure it once they have been watered down many times to reduce their strength. Advocates of the practice claim the water retains a “memory” of the original substance, yet no studies have ever proved that they work.
In 2010, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee called for NHS funding to stop, and the British Medical Association has made similar pleas.
The NHS Clinical Commissioners, the body which was asked to review which medications should no longer be prescribed for NHS England, said it had included drugs with ‘little or no clinical value’, yet could not offer an explanation why homeopathic medicines had escaped the cut.
Under the new rules, which will be released for consultation on Friday, doctors will be banned from routinely prescribing items that are cheaply available in chemists such as heartburn pills, paracetamol, hayfever tablets, sun cream, muscle rubs, Omega 3 fish oils, medicine for coughs and colds and travel vaccinations. Coeliacs will also be forced to buy their own gluten-free food.
Julie Wood, Chief Executive, NHS Clinical Commissioners said: “Clinical commissioners have always had to make difficult choices about prioritising how they spend their budget on services, but the finance and demand challenges we face at the moment are unprecedented.
“CCGs have been looking at their medicines spend, and many are already implementing policies to reduce spending on those prescribeable items that have little or no clinical value for patients, and are therefore not an effective use of the NHS pound.”
The cuts are part of new measures to reduce £1 billion of costs in the health service, which is struggling to cope with a surge in demand caused by an expanding population.
NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens is also pledging to crack down on the expense of treating patients from the European Union by recuperating the cost from visitors’ home countries, as well as cutting the cost of employing expensive locum doctors.
NHS England said the prescription changes could save the health service up to £128 million per year.
However The Royal College of GPs warned it could leave poorer patients unable to access vital medication.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College said: "Prescribing is a core skill in general practice and family doctors will always prescribe in the best interests of the patient in front of us, taking into account the combination of physical, psychological and social factors affecting their health.
"Imposing blanket policies on GPs, that don’t take into account demographic differences across the country, or allowing flexibility for a patient’s individual circumstances, risks alienating the most vulnerable in society – and we will be seeking assurances from NHS England that this won’t be the case.”
NHS England said would be seeking the views of patient groups, clinicians, commissioners and providers across the NHS in the coming months before final guidance is issued later this year.