Why is 'witchcraft' being sponsored by health insurance?


VHI, Quinn and other insurers should not be paying for homeopathy and reflexology, writes  PAUL O'DONOGHUE

THE REFLEXOLOGISTS of Ireland must be feeling really peeved. I have just learned that Quinn Healthcare will pay up to €20 per consultation for a maximum of eight visits to an “approved reflexologist and up to €20 per consultation for a maximum of 12 visits to a homeopath. A potential shortfall of €80 for the poor reflexologist. Surely this is a case of blatant discrimination considering both systems are based on equally nonsensical premises.

Quinn Healthcare trumpets “the best cover for complementary therapists such as acupuncturists, homeopaths and reflexologists” as one of the reasons that companies have chosen Quinn Healthcare. Of course, it turns out that they are not alone in their promotion and funding of complementary therapies, which I prefer to label “alternative”, as they are largely unsupported by science and medicine. I say largely, because for reasons that I fail to clearly understand, some mainstream professionals appear to be convinced of their veracity.

How can a therapy that defies and contradicts the laws of science be said to be complementary to mainstream practice, except in the precise literal sense that it can run alongside it?

VHI lists these two practices as eligible for benefit, while Aviva appears to cover a “wide range of alternative therapists” – at least it uses the more accurate term!

I typed “reflexology” into the Aviva search engine and learned quite a lot. “Reflexology is the holistic understanding, study and practice of treating points and areas in the feet and hands that relate to corresponding parts of the body.” This is in direct contradiction to our current understanding of anatomy and physiology.

According to this informative article, which Aviva publishes with “kind permission”, “many doctors, consultants and other healthcare professionals recognise reflexology as a well-established, respected and effective therapy”. I doubt this claim, not least of all because the article further states that “reflexology has been shown to be effective” for a range of conditions including infertility, arthritis, sleep disorders, hormonal imbalances and digestive disorders! I would like to see the data.

What about the claims of the better paid homeopaths? They want us to believe that by treating us with a vastly diluted solution of a substance that causes specific symptoms if taken in a non-diluted form, they will cure those same symptoms in a patient. Common dilutions used in homeopathy are “30C” and “50C”, with 50C solutions deemed so potent that they must be prescribed, contrary to 30C solutions which may be purchased over the counter in various pharmacies and health shops. But what do these dilutions mean?

A 30C solution is one in which a substance has been dissolved in water to one part in 100 followed by one part of this solution being dissolved in 100 parts water and so on 30 times. This equates to one part in one followed by 60 zeroes. The 50C solution translates to one part in one followed by 100 zeroes. You can even purchase a 100C solution. You can work that out for yourselves. These dilutions are utterly meaningless and indicate that when you buy a homeopathic remedy you are merely purchasing very expensive water.

Homeopaths acknowledge this, but claim that by a magical shaking process, referred to as succussion, the water retains a memory of what was dissolved in it – while at the same time forgetting all of the other substances that have been dissolved in it in the past.

I have no objection to people choosing to spend their hard-earned money on such outlandish practices as reflexology and homeopathy, but I do have a problem with my health insurers paying out for such nonsense. While homeopaths refer to a small number of studies purporting to support its efficacy, the overwhelming consensus is that it works no better than a placebo.

In Britain recently, the British Medical Association voted to stop providing homeopathic treatments on the NHS and said that all homeopathic products sold in pharmacies should be labelled as placebo. Crystal Sumner, chief executive of the British Homeopathic Association, has responded by saying that funding cuts would ignore the many NHS patients who want homeopathy.

The effectiveness of a treatment is not determined by democratic vote, it is determined via scientific method. Evidence-based therapy is the order of the day, particularly given limited resources. Because of fiscal constraints it is often extremely difficult to obtain best treatment for very ill patients. This situation can only be worsened if funds are wasted on what has been described at a recent conference of junior doctors in the UK, as “witchcraft”. The label is well merited in my opinion.

Paul ODonoghue is a clinical psychologist and founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society; contact@irishskeptics.net