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Study Finds Half Of Doctors Prescribe Placebo Treatments

Posted by Chrissie Cole
Thursday, October 23, 2008 11:01 PM EST
Category: Major Medical
Tags: FDA and Prescription Drugs, Protecting Your Family, Placebo Treatments, Arthritis


IMAGE SOURCE: iStockPhoto / author: stockcam

More than half of all American doctors prescribe fake prescriptions, that really won’t help their patient’s condition – and many of them are not honest about what they are doing, according to a new study.

Placebo (also referred to as sugar pills) is a procedure or substance a patient accepts as therapy or medicine, but which has no specific therapeutic activity. Any therapeutic effects are thought to be based on the power of suggestion.

For the study, researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sent more than 1,200 surveys to internists and rheumatologists, who treat arthritis. 679 responses were received. Of those, 62 percent believe using a placebo treatment is ethically acceptable.

Half the doctors surveyed reported using placebos several times in any given month, nearly 70 percent of them described the treatment to their patients as “potentially beneficial medicine not typically used for your condition.” Only five percent referred to it as “placebo treatment.”

The study found most doctors used real drugs as a placebo treatment: painkillers [41%], vitamins [38%], antibiotics [13%], sedatives [13%], saline injections [3%] and 2 percent used placebos.

When the doctors were asked if they would prescribe a fake prescription for patients with chronic pain, if it was found to be more effective than no treatment, 60 percent said they would.

The most commonly prescribed placebos are headache pills and vitamins, with doctors also prescribing antibiotics and sedatives because of their effect on the patients’ psyches, not that of their bodies.

Previous controlled trials have shown placebos may prove helpful. In one instance, nearly 30 to 40 percent of depressed patients that were given placebos got better. Placebos have also been proven effective for the treatment of hypertension and pain.

Despite attention given to the powerful effect placebos can have, basic questions still remain unanswered: Are they truly any better than no treatment at all? Must people be tricked into believing a treatment is active for the placebo to work?

While some studies have answered some of these questions, experts say more research is needed.

The placebo holds an important place in medical research. To best test how well a given drug performs, one group of patients in a clinical study may get the drug while the other group gets the placebo to see if the drug provides comparable results.

However, other studies have also found that giving a patient a placebo can sometimes trigger true health improvements triggered by a patient’s expectations that a treatment may help them.

The American Medical Association, says doctors can use placebo treatments, but only with the full permission and understanding of their patients.

The study is published in BMJ, formerly The British Medical Journal. #

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