Almost Half of Doctors Have Prescribed Placebos

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Almost half of Chicago internists say they have prescribed a placebo to a patient during their years of practice, a new study finds.

A majority of doctors in the study also said they believed in the power of placebos, indicating that doctors do accept a mind-body relationship that can affect health, the researchers said.

A placebo, often referred to as a “sugar pill,” has no medicinal qualities.

A University of Chicago research team sent surveys about placebo use to 466 internists at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois — Chicago. Half of the recipients responded, and 45 percent of the respondents reported giving a patient a placebo at least once during their years of practice.

“Placebos have been used in medicine since ancient times and remain both clinically relevant and philosophically interesting. In addition to their recognized use as controls in clinical trials, this study suggests that placebos themselves are viewed as therapeutic tools in medical practice,” co-author Rachel Sherman, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, said in a prepared statement.

Of the doctors who said they had prescribed a placebo, one in three (34 percent) said they told their patient the placebo was “a substance that may help and will not hurt.”

One in five (19 percent) told their patient “it is medication” and one in 10 (9 percent) said “it is medicine with no specific effect.”

Four percent of the doctors who prescribed placebos told their patient they were prescribing a placebo.

Just over one in 10 (12 percent) of the doctors who answered the survey said doctors should be prevented from prescribing placebos. According to the research team, the use of placebos is ethically debatable. Some ethicists argue patients should know they are being given a placebo, but others see no problem with the placebo effect. The placebo effect means that some patients will get better either spontaneously or because they believe they are being treated, not because of the medicine itself.

Almost all the respondents (96 percent) said they believed placebos could be therapeutic for patients. The majority also believed in the possibility of positive psychological and physiological benefits of meditation, yoga, relaxation techniques, biofeedback, prayer, spirituality, a good social support system, good doctor-patient rapport, and the interior design of the health care environment.

The study was published in the January issue theJournal of General Internal Medicine.
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