Half of all American doctors responding to a nationwide survey say they regularly prescribe placebos to patients. The results trouble medical ethicists, who say more research is needed to determine whether doctors must deceive patients in order for placebos to work.
The study involved 679 internists and rheumatologists chosen randomly from a national list of such doctors. In response to three questions included as part of the larger survey, about half reported recommending placebos regularly. Surveys in Denmark, Israel, Britain, Sweden and New Zealand have found similar results.
Someone comes in to you — your job is to help them get well — and they’re sick but there’s not much that can be done.
But you know that positive states of mind — mantras, payers, positive thinking, and even placebos — convince people that they can get well, so they do.
Researchers have been studying the placebo effect for decades. In 1955, researcher H.K. Beecher published his groundbreaking paper “The Powerful Placebo,” in which he concluded that, across the 26 studies he analyzed, an average of 32 percent of patients responded to placebo. In the 1960s, breakthrough studies showed the potential physiological effects of dummy pills–they tended to speed up pulse rate, increase blood pressure, and improve reaction speeds, for example, when participants were told they had taken a stimulant, and had the opposite physiological effects when participants were told they had taken a sleep-producing drug.
It’s no surprise many doctors prescribe placebos or incidental medications. Their patients will only feel better if they believe they’ve been given something to help, and then they manage it on their own.
The same is true of voters. They want something to believe in. Then they adapt to the reality, whatever it is. But since they need a placebo, they are probably not the right people to make the decision — a wise doctor, even if a bit cynical, would be.