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50% of Doctors Prescribe Placebos

Taking Advantage of 'Placebo Effect' Is OK, Most Doctors Say
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Placebo Prescriptions: Right or Wrong?

Is it right for doctors to prescribe treatments they believe are not biochemically effective?

Here's the official policy of the American Medical Association:

  • Use of a placebo without the patient's knowledge may undermine trust, compromise the patient-physician relationship, and result in medical harm to the patient.
  • A placebo must not be given merely to mollify a difficult patient, because doing so serves the convenience of the physician more than it promotes the patient's welfare.
  • Physicians may use placebos for diagnosis or treatment only if the patient is informed of and agrees to its use.

That last point seems tricky. How can a fake drug work if a patient knows it is fake?

The AMA policy says doctors should explain to patients that they can better understand their condition if they try different medicines, including a placebo. If the patient agrees to this, the doctor does not have to identify which medicine is fake, nor does the doctor have to get the patient's specific consent before giving the patient the fake treatment.

There's nothing wrong with this approach, says medical ethicist Arthur Caplan, PhD, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

"It is ethical to use treatments that are low risk and have few side effects if you can relieve people's symptoms," Caplan tells WebMD. "Placebos are especially useful in the treatment of the psychological aspects of disease. Most doctors will tell you they have used placebos."

But doctors do often prescribe placebos the wrong way. In today's world, a doctor can't write a prescription for a sugar pill. The doctor has to prescribe something -- and every active medicine carries some risk of side effects.

"What you can use as a placebo is complicated. I have seen people dispensing antibiotics as placebo for mothers who want something for their kids' flu," Caplan says. "Not only does this not help, but it does build up drug resistance and may have some serious side effects for the child."

Most doctors use relatively harmless drugs, such as baby aspirin, as placebos. Clearly, great care must be taken to ensure that the placebo drug's risk is less than the benefit of the hoped-for placebo effect.

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