How the Society of Homeopaths had their accredited status suspended

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Michael Marshall
Michael Marshallhttp://goodthinkingsociety.org/
Michael Marshall is project director of the Good Thinking Society and president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He writes and lectures on the role of PR in the news, and interviews proponents of pseudoscience on the Be Reasonable podcast. In August 2020, he took over as Editor of The Skeptic.

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Earlier this month, the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) announced it had suspended the accreditation of the Society of Homeopaths (SoH), finding that the SoH “did not appear to have prioritised public protection over professional interests in its handling of complaints or governance processes.”

According to the PSA, the SoH’s failings in this regard “led to risks to the public from homeopathy being offered as an alternative for serious conditions such as depression, arthritis and autoimmune conditions that require medical supervision.” As such, their accreditation has been suspended for at least 12 months.

The decision from the PSA comes after years of controversy over the SoH’s position as an accredited register, and to understand it fully it’s important to understand that history. The PSA are the government watchdog responsible for regulating healthcare regulators and registers, including statutory regulators such as the General Medical Council, the General Dental Council and the General Chiropractic Council. This means that if a medical doctor, dentist, or even chiropractor does something wrong – like acting unprofessionally towards a patient, or misleading them about their care – they could be subject to a complaint to their relevant regulator; if that regulator doesn’t take that complaint seriously, they themselves are subject to a complaint to the PSA. If they’re found wanting, the PSA has the power to issue sanctions upon that regulator.

The Professional Standards Authority - Accredited Register logo
The logo used to proclaim Accredited Register status

In 2012, the PSA announced a new Accredited Voluntary Register scheme for organisations where regulation wasn’t mandatory or statutory, but who might feel they benefit from the oversight of a government watchdog. Inevitably, this voluntary accreditation comes with a bit of kudos – registrants get to use the logo of the PSA’s scheme on all their marketing materials, and get to tell prospective patients they’re part of an official accredited register. To stay on the scheme, and to keep the kudos, registers have to undergo annual reviews, in which they prove they’re keeping their registrants in line, preventing anything undesirable, and handling complaints in a timely and responsible manner. In theory, that’s all great, and most of the registers who were granted Accredited Register status have been reasonable and uncontroversial.

However, in 2014, the Society of Homeopaths applied for and were granted Accredited Register status. Since then, all of their registrants have been free to use the logo of the Professional Standard Authority on all of their marketing materials and websites… including on websites that were, unsurprisingly, filled with wildly misleading claims – like that autism can be cured with homeopathy, that vaccines can’t be trusted, or that homeopathy can treat depression and anxiety.

Since 2014, people have been making complaints to the Society of Homeopaths to point out misleading claims spread by accredited homeopaths… with limited success. Despite being shown on occasions too numerous to count all of the ways in which homeopaths were misleading and even endangering the public, the Society of Homeopaths arguably took no meaningful action.

As a result, in 2019 the Good Thinking Society (of which I am Project Director) brought a legal challenge to the Society’s accreditation, specifically after we demonstrated SoH registrants were promoting anti-vaccine misinformation and claiming that they could cure autism via CEASE therapy. That legal case was withdrawn in early 2020, after the PSA imposed strict conditions upon the SoH, mandating that they ensure their members do not claim to be able to cure autism, or spread vaccine misinformation.

Sadly, those conditions appeared to have little impact on what homeopaths felt comfortable claiming. In April 2020, in the early weeks of the pandemic, I published an exposé in association with The Times showing registrants of the Society of Homeopaths selling homeopathic remedies aimed at treating COVID-19. Just a few months later, in July, we reported in The Telegraph that the Society had appointed a new ‘Professional Standards and Safeguarding Lead’: Sue Pilkington, a homeopath who had repeatedly shared anti-vaccine misinformation. This appointment was made despite conditions imposed upon the SoH just five months earlier, explicitly concerning their failure to tackle anti-vaccine propaganda among their membership.

The appointment prompted an emergency review by the PSA, leading to Ms Pilkington’s immediate dismissal. That review also resulted in conditions being placed upon the SoH’s accreditation, including that they adequately vet new appointees and that they prioritise public safety – and it’s really their failure to meet those most recent conditions that has led to their suspension.

The PSA’s decision is available in full on their website, and in it they outline the reasons for the PSA’s suspension. On the subject of vetting new appointees, the SoH said they had carried out checks to assure itself of previous applicants’ compliance with its Code of Ethics and position statements. But the PSA found that it those checks mostly focused on the appointee’s social media, and failed to clarify how the SoH intended to ensure compliance by staff and Board members on an ongoing basis. In fact, the PSA raised a particular weakness there: because the SoH appoints practicing homeopaths to key roles, the PSA was unconvinced homeopaths could judge what is and isn’t appropriate for a homeopath to say – a point that was underscored by the appointment of Ms Pilkington.

The PSA’s review also looked at the SoH’s handling of complaints regarding their registrants, finding that the SoH did not recognise the risk to patients and the public from misinformation on their registrants’ websites. While some steps had been taken to contact registrants over their claims, and references to the bogus CEASE therapy had been removed, the SoH’s response indicated that they found no issues with homeopaths claiming that homeopathy could treat autism – even when those references were being made by the homeopaths who had previously claimed to be able to cure autism via CEASE therapy. In a particularly damning line, the PSA found that they were not confident that complaints would be handled in a way that prioritised protecting the public over protecting the professional interests of the homeopaths.

The SoH had been charged with actively monitoring their registrants’ websites to find and correct any misleading claims. In the evidence they submitted of their monitoring effectiveness, the PSA found examples where homeopaths continued to promote homeopathy to treat depression, autism, hyperthyroidism, and arthritis, even after the SoH’s intervention. The SoH had checked these websites, and had determined these claims were compliant, even though they breached Advertising Standards Authority guidance – guidance the SoH’s own Code of Ethics makes clear must be followed. Either the SoH were incapable of recognising claims that were in breach of advertising rules, or they were incapable of getting their registrants to correct them.

The SoH’s suspension by the PSA will be reviewed again in 12 months’ time. If they want to regain their accredited status – something it seems like their registrants value – they must demonstrate that they have tried “as far as is reasonably possible” to ensure homeopaths comply with the SoH Code of Ethics, including the ASA’s rules on advertising and websites, taking action against anything that is non-compliant. They will also need to demonstrate that they are capable of separating the protection of the public from their work supporting the homeopathy profession, and they have to prove that whenever there is tension, they prioritise protecting the public. Given the issues with the SoH in the past, each of those looks like a mountain to climb.

As of 11 January 2021, the SoH and its registrants are not permitted to use the Authority’s Accredited Registers quality mark on any of their materials or websites – though, a quick check earlier this week shows more than 50 registrants continue to do so.

Society of Homeopaths logo

The suspension of the SoH may go on to have wider effects: the PSA is currently reviewing the voluntary scheme entirely, to ensure it is fit for purpose. The SoH are not the only concerning register to be part of the voluntary scheme – the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, for example, seem to equally struggle with registrants who make misleading health claims to the public.

Hopefully, the SoH’s suspension, along with their consistent failure to properly grasp their role as register, will go on to set a precedent, as the PSA scrutinises other accredited registers whose members promote therapies that are not supported by evidence.

The public understandably interpret PSA accreditation as a sign of credibility; where that credibility is being lent to practices that do not work and in some cases are actively harmful, it erodes public confidence in the PSA as a whole, and potentially puts the health and wellbeing of vulnerable members of the public at risk. Suspending the Society of Homeopaths is a solid first step towards repairing that erosion.

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