It is probably fair to say that only a vanishingly minuscule concentration of scientists believe that homeopathy is effective. But that has not stopped Canada’s leading university from offering it to staff as part of its employee health plan.
Jen Gunter, a Canadian obstetrician and gynaecologist who highlighted the issue on her blog earlier this month, writes that it is “hard to reconcile homeopathy being covered…at a place of employment with a medical school and department of physics”.
She adds that it came in the wake of previous recent controversies about Toronto’s stance on alternative medicine, such as its approval of a study of whether attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can be treated with homeopathy, and its recruitment of a homeopath (married to the dean of one of its campuses) to teach a course on “alternative health” that questioned the effectiveness of vaccines and promised to reveal how quantum mechanics explained the effectiveness of homeopathy, acupuncture and meditation. The university has since said that the course will not run in 2015-16.
A spokeswoman for Toronto said that adding homeopathy to staff benefits was “negotiated with several unions. It’s something our employees have requested and, as always, we do our best to be responsive to employees’ wishes.”
However, Paul Downes, vice-president for salary, benefits and pensions at the University of Toronto Faculty Association, said that the UTFA - which represents non-unionised faculty and librarians at the institution - had "declined to include homeopathy among the benefits improvements it sought from the university administration in the latest round of bargaining”.
Toronto’s justification was questioned by Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, a medical research institute affiliated with the university.
“How many employees asked for coverage and was the pseudoscientific nature of homoeopathy explained to them?” he asked.
He added that while adding coverage for alternative therapies was “trivial in many respects”, it sent “entirely the wrong signal” given the recent controversies and Toronto’s status as Canada’s leading university.
“Many health insurance plans cover this hocus-pocus and they should all be ashamed for doing so. But given recent embarrassments, Toronto should be setting a clear example, not legitimising bogus methods that can cause real harm through delay of effective therapy,” he said.
“Homeopathy has thrived because it stays below the medicinal radar (when was the last time you saw an advert?) but it’s well past time that it is shown for what it is — an 18th-century fairy tale. Instead of covering this expense, the university could have offered free water. It works just as well. Or it could have demanded coverage [from homeopaths] for 0.0000000001 cents per employee.”