Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Homeopathy at Exeter University?

Earlier today, 15th Novemeber 2011, @Blue_Wode tweeted a link to a page on the website of the University of Exeter where the Staff Association is offering a discount for a homeopathy clinic ON IT'S CAMPUS!


Now, we all know that homeopathy is bunkum, a form of so-called "complementary and alternative medicine" - SCAM, for short. I found this particularly surprising, given that the scourge of the homeopaths, Professor Edzard Ernst (@EdzardErnst) had recently "retired" from his post as Professor of Complementary and Alternative Therapy.

I decided to email various people within the University of Exeter to point this out and to ask them to act on this. As a university containing a medical school it really should not be in any way associated with the promotion - inadvertant or otherwise - of quack therapies. The web page makes many false claims of benefit that have typified those made on the websites of homeopaths. The Advertising Standards Authority has been deluged in recent months regarding complaints about homeopathy websites such that it has issued a temporary (hopefully!) moratorium on these complaints so that it can decide how best to deal with them. See http://www.asa.org.uk/Resource-Centre/Hot-Topics/Homeopathy-complaints.aspx for further information on this. This deluge of complaints has been made possible through the work of Simon Perry and his development of the browser plug-in "Fishbarrel" http://adventuresinnonsense.blogspot.com/search?q=fishbarrel

I sent this email at lunchtime to the Occupational Health department, the Chancellor (Floella Benjamin - the former children's TV presenter) and the Vice-Chancellor to ask them to act:-

"You may be aware  that homeopathy is being offered as a "Staff Benefit" by the University of Exeter. The reason I am aware of this is that this information is being spread through social networks by people who have serious concerns about this. It is particularly surprising that this "service" is being offered considering that the University had the only UK professor of "complementary and alternative medicine", the recently retired Edzard Ernst. Professor Ernst is well-known for his research and multiple publications on these "therapies" and has been very critical of homeopathy. The reasons for his criticism of homeopathy are based in the evidence - the evidence base clearly shows that at best homeopathy offers no benefit beyond placebo. To therefore be offering homeopathy as a staff benefit is actually doing the staff of the University of Exeter a great disservice by the promotion - inadvertent or otherwise - of quackery. You also have the Peninsula Medical School within your university, so again anything which promotes pseudoscience and quackery potentially harms the reputation of the University.

Please give serious consideration to withdrawing this so-called benefit and instead promote genuine evidence-based therapies for university staff."

I didn't expect a reply so quickly, but I must give kudos to Serena Horrell, manager of the Occupational Health department for replying within just a few hours:-

"Dear Paul,

I have picked up your email from our generic email account. I think the offer you must be referring to is the one being made by the Staff Association to its members, not one being made by ‘The University’ per se (more staff not being members, than those who are). As far as I am aware, the Occupational Health Service have never offered complimentary therapies (of any kind) and in the four years I have been post, this has remained the case, for the very reason/s you state (i.e. there is no evidence base for their use). 

I suspect the Staff Association see the use of complimentary therapies as something its members might value and are therefore offering these services to any members who might be interested (at a personal cost to each person who avails them self).  I fear there are a number of activities going on, in and around the university, that are neither evidence based nor have an established justification for their use, but, because all of the staff working at the university are adults, I expect they are being left to make their own decisions and judgements on these activities. If you have a real issue with this, you may wish to address the matter with someone representing the Staff Association direct.

Best wishes,


Serena HORRELL, Mrs

Occupational Health Manager"

This is somewhat reassuring as it is clear that her department in no way supports or endorses homeopathy. However, the clinic is being held on the University campus and - inadvertantly or otherwise - it gives the impression that the University endorses the use of homeopathy. As suggested in her reply I have replied to Serena and copied it to the Staff Association (and also the Vice-Chancellor):-

"Dear Serena,

Many thanks for your prompt reply. It is extremely reassuring to know that your University does not endorse or directly supply homeopathic “remedies”. It does indeed appear that it is the Staff Association that is promoting homeopathy through a discount scheme. However, the link is readily accessible from the University website http://www.exeter.ac.uk/staffassociation/benefits/homeopathy/

This web page makes it clear that this “therapy” is provided at a clinic on the University campus, thereby indirectly suggesting that the clinic is endorsed by the University. Clearly, this should be unacceptable to an institution with science at its core. I have copied this reply to the Staff Association email address so that they can deal with it. Were it not for the temporary embargo on complaints about false claims of benefit made by homeopaths, I would report the page I linked to to the Advertising Standards Authority as the claims of benefit made on that page clearly breaches the advertising code of the Committee of Advertising Practice by making claims of benefit for homeopathy for which there is no evidence of benefit to support them. The Staff Association should immediately remove this page from the website and stop promoting this quack “therapy” before the ASA takes steps to deal with this in the same way as it is dealing with other homeopathy websites and their owners. The University should immediately distance itself from this promotion to prevent it being tainted by association, no matter how indirect that association may be."

So, will the University of Exeter take the necessary steps to disassociate itself from the promotion of homeopathy? We can but hope!