Imagine for a moment, that a new pill that is claimed to be able to treat all sorts of common medical ailments hits the market. The only measurably significant contents of this magic pill are sugar, water, and the inactive additives used to bind the tablet together. In terms of evidence supporting the effectiveness of this product, hundreds of scientific studies have determined that this pill is not effective for the treatment of any medical condition. In fact, multiple governments worldwide have even warned their citizens that this pill should not be used to treat health conditions.
Now imagine that the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU) has decided to use your money to pay for this useless pill, under its student health insurance plan. Outrageous and far-fetched, right? Not so fast.
Unfortunately, the situation described above is not a thought experiment — it is the analogous reality relating to the insurance coverage of homeopathy by the UTSU. For those unfamiliar, homeopathy is a belief system that falls under the umbrella of alternative medicine. It consists of the use of a variety of substances that have been diluted in water — to the point that none of the original substance is actually present — for the treatment of unlimited numbers of medical conditions.
When a typical homeopathic pill is administered, the only measurably significant components of the remedy are essentially sugar and water. Hundreds of scientific studies testing the effectiveness of homeopathy have led to the consensus that, as reiterated by the Australian government in March 2015, “there is no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy is effective in treating health conditions”.
Despite the near-universal dismissal of homeopathy by the medical and scientific community, the current UTSU health plan covers up to $600 of homeopathic services per student per year. That means if every undergraduate student at the St. George campus (a conservative estimate of 40,000 students) used this benefit fully, the current UTSU plan is willing to pay $24,000,000 per year to homeopaths.
For perspective, this is the same amount of money that is allocated for services from psychologists and physiotherapists, respectively. This means a student cannot access more than $600 of psychological counselling per year, even if they need more, but can still seek an additional $600 of useless advice about how to take a sugar pill to cure a cold. This waste of resources defies any definition of equitable access to healthcare, and every notion of common sense.
It also apparently defies common practice. Indeed, of all the student unions at Ontario universities, the UTSU health plan is one of only a small minority that cover homeopathic services. The vast majority of student insurance plans recognize that homeopathy should not be allocated insurance money. In fact, U of T’s Graduate Student Union, whose health plan previously covered homeopathy, voted to remove its coverage from their insurance benefits in 2013. In this way, the UTSU is going against the standard of practice for student health plans, even amongst fellow U of T student organizations.
By including homeopathy on their health insurance plan, the UTSU is effectively legitimizing baseless health practices, as they are giving students a reason to use a service that has no actual benefit — this could cause real harm if it were to delay them in accessing treatments that they actually need. A student health plan should not endorse or pay for ineffective medical therapies, especially when that money could be more effectively allocated to provide increased access to beneficial health services that many students require, such as psychological counselling and physiotherapy. Instead of using student money to subsidize a worthless health practice, the UTSU should use an evidence-based approach to effectively appropriate funding to better serve student health needs. While this might disappoint purveyors of homeopathy, it is the only justifiable way to give students equitable access to the quality health services they pay for and deserve.
Andrew Rouble is a second-year medical student.