A new code of ethics governing homeopathic products is being ignored, reports Farah Hancock

Pharmacies are ignoring a new code of ethics which requires them to inform customers if a product has no evidence of efficacy.

Four Auckland pharmacies visited by Newsroom were asked if a homeopathic product would work. In three cases a staff member said the product would work. The fourth pharmacy said there was no evidence “yet” the product would work.

Practiced since 1796, homeopathy believes the more dilute an active ingredient the more potent the treatment. Homeopathy’s effectiveness has been rejected by scientists and by large government reviews conducted in the United Kingdom, Australia and Europe.

The pharmacy Code of Ethics 2018 update came into effect March 12. It replaced a 2011 code which said pharmacies should not sell products which have no credible evidence of efficacy. This was widely ignored by pharmacies.

The new code allows products without proof of effectiveness to be sold but only if the customer is informed there is no scientific evidence around their ability to treat issues.

Pharmacy staff said a liquid labelled arnica could heal bruises, reduce swelling after dental procedures and could speed up healing after surgery. Some did mention the product was homeopathic which they said made it “more natural” than other treatments.

None of the pharmacies explained the level of dilution of a “30C” homeopathic product meant there was infinitesimal likelihood any trace of the active ingredient remained. 30C is a common homeopathic dilution of ingredient with water. A 30C solution contains less than one part per million million million million million million million million million million of the original ingredient.

Three of the pharmacies approached were part of Green Cross Health which owns the Unichem and Life Pharmacy chains. Group manager of professional services, Alison Van Wyk, said the ‘full picture” should be given to customers about any lack of evidence associated with a product.

She said customers should seek out the pharmacist for advice.

“When it comes to complementary medicines, that part is really important, to ask for the white coat when you go into community pharmacies. When I say the white coat, I’m talking about the pharmacist.”

However, the code of ethics applies to all staff within a pharmacy, not just the pharmacist.

Van Wyk said there is a teaching programme available to staff and Green Cross Health provides the tools needed to learn.

“We have a Teach Me platform throughout the group. We have over 3,500 enrolled on that and this is an important part of that is making sure that message gets across.”

The Pharmacy Council, which created the code of ethics, was established under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act. Its primary role is to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of the public. Chief executive, Michael Pead said the council had recently sent a newsletter to all pharmacists to ensure they are aware of the new rules around complementary and alternative treatments.

Pead said if a complaint about a homeopathic product being sold without full disclosure of a lack of evidence was received by the council, the matter would be referred to an Independent Professional Conduct Committee.

After an investigation a recommendation would be made to the council which could range from a letter of concern being sent to the pharmacist, to the complaint being sent to the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal.

The code of ethics update came after consumer advocacy group Society for Science Based Healthcare complained to the council in 2014. Chair, Mark Hanna, said he was disappointed, but not surprised pharmacies were not complying with the new code.

“The real test now of course is when the Pharmacy Council finds out about this what happens. You have to be able to enforce this. They should at the very least help the pharmacy become compliant, if the pharmacy doesn’t want to be helped, then the Pharmacy Council needs to do something about it.”

Hanna was concerned with Green Cross Health’s advice for customers to make an effort to seek out a pharmacist within a branch to be sure they get the full advice.

“It’s not the customers’ responsibility. They should be able to trust the advice they get in a pharmacy.”

He said society members would be conducting checks themselves to see if the code was being followed and would be making complaints to the Pharmacy Council if needed. He said the society would be happy to help any member of the public who wanted advice about how to make a complaint to the council.

Hanna hopes compliance with the new code improves.

“It’s a code of ethics, you should follow it.”

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