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50% of U.S. Doctors Secretly Dose Their Patients—With the Placebo Effect

80beatsBy Eliza StricklandOctober 25, 2008 1:03 AM


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About half of surveyed U.S. doctors say they regularly prescribe placebos without their patients knowledge, and most admit to no qualms about handing out vitamins, aspirin, and other benign pills that have little relevance to the symptoms their patients complain of, according to a new study. Several medical ethicists say they're troubled by the results, including study coauthor Franklin Miller:

“This is the doctor-patient relationship, and our expectations about being truthful about what’s going on and about getting informed consent should give us pause about deception” [The New York Times].

Study coauthor John Tilburt says these findings are a reflection of the modern mentality

that for every symptom you may experience, there's a pill to make it all better.... "Doctors feel pressured to prescribe something in order to show the patient that they are taking their symptoms seriously and trying to do something about it, so they try to find creative ways to make patients feel better, and will use any tool available, including psychological benefits" [ABC News].

In the study, reported in the British Medical Journal, researchers surveyed 679 general internal medicine docs. They found that some physicians even reported prescribing sedatives or antibiotics, which aren't usually considered placebos, but the doctors said they passed out these medications for their effects on the patients' minds, not their bodies. The study found that

most of the doctors who prescribe placebo treatments typically describe them to patients as "a potentially beneficial medicine or treatment not typically used for their condition" [Bloomberg].

Placebos harness the mysterious power of the mind to heal the body; their benefits come from the positive expectations of the patient rather than any physical mechanism [Chicago Tribune].

Some recent clinical trials have backed up the efficacy of the placebo effect for conditions like depression and high blood pressure, but the catch is that the patients must be unaware that they're not taking a traditional medication. Even if that's a "benevolent deception," as some experts argue, it's enough to make some doctors feel uncomfortable. Related Content: DISCOVER: Are Antidepressants Actually Worth Taking? DISCOVER: Is the Placebo Effect a Myth?

Image: flickr/Fillmore Photography

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