Sugar pills for your ills?

06 January 2008


A new survey of doctors in Chicago has shown that nearly half of them have given patients a placebo, or dummy treatment, at some point. Nowadays we usually think of placebos as being used in clinical trials, to compare their effect with that of a genuine treatment.

Prescription placebos used in research and practiceBut whereas in the past doctors also used placebos to work out if a patient was really ill or just faking it, but it seems that nearly all the doctors in the survey believed that the dummy treatment might have some benefit - if only psychosomatic.

The researchers surveyed more than 200 doctors in the city, to find out if they had ever given patients placebos, and discover their attitudes towards other psychological aspects of medicine, such as alternative therapies or doctor-patient communication.

Only around one in ten of the doctors surveyed said they thought that placebos should never be used. The doctors who admitted giving placebo treatments used various terms to describe what they were offering, including "a substance that may help and will not hurt.", "it is medication,"or "it is medicine with no specific effect." Only four percent of the doctors actually said, "it is a placebo."

There is an obvious moral dilemma attached to the use of placebos.  Research has shown that they can have beneficial effects - it's not called the placebo effect for nothing - but is it ethical to give patients a dummy treatment?  It's clear that there is a growing interest in the connection between mind and body for both doctors and their patients, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the future.


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