A BMJ study is catching the eye of mainstream media (or is this a case of “gotcha” journalism?), with headlines blaring that half of American doctors regularly prescribe placebos to patients. Those unethical bastards:
The most common placebos the American doctors reported using were headache pills and vitamins, but a significant number also reported prescribing antibiotics and sedatives. Although these drugs, contrary to the usual definition of placebos, are not inert, doctors reported using them for their effect on patients’ psyches, not their bodies.
In most cases, doctors who recommended placebos described them to patients as “a medicine not typically used for your condition but might benefit you,” the survey found. Only 5 percent described the treatment to patients as “a placebo.”
Couple of points.
# Antibiotics and sedatives are horrible choices for placebo medication. They have very real risks and side effects, such as increasing the incidence of drug resistance bacteria with the former and falls with the latter.
# Telling your patients that you’re giving a placebo defeats the whole purpose of prescribing one.
# Many alternative medical therapies are suspected to have a strong placebo component to their supposed effectiveness.
# Placebos have been shown to work in cases of depression, hypertension and pain. However, ethically incorporating the power of the placebo effect in everyday medical practice remains a challenge.