In light of the findings of a large study on the use of placebos, the German Medical Association now recommends the use of placebos because they are more effective in patients with mild depression and chronic pain. They also recommended that physicians prescribe them out more often — even without explicitly telling their patients. Dr. Peter Scriba, chairman of the German Medical Association’s advisory board, said placebos could help patients with mild anxiety, depression, chronic inflammatory problems, pain and asthma.
The German physician organization said placebos side effects usually don’t occur (other research studies have shown that even placebos can cause them, based on the person’s belief and dear) . They could be the last hope for patients with difficult to treat ailments where no effective treatment option exists.
The placebo effect, is perhaps the best known mind body healing mechanism. It clearly demonstrates the power our minds have over our bodies. It shows that belief can in fact change how our cells and organs function, on a primary level.
Experts have long recognized that placebos can sometimes cause physiological changes in patients who expect to get better, and brain scans have shown that the brain reacts to placebos in the same way it does to actual drugs. They believe placebos work best for diseases where there is a subjective component like perceptions of pain — and that they wouldn’t work for other problems like broken bones or cancer.
Most people aren’t aware that placebos are given in all new drug studies, as a standard process, to determine the difference between the mind’s belief and the drug’s actual impact on a condition.
Dr. Scriba said placebos shouldn’t be used for conditions where an effective therapy exists and that doctors must tell patients they’re getting something unusual. But he says doctors aren’t obliged to actually use the word “placebo.”
“You could tell the patient you have something that has helped other patients with their condition and you consider it possible this treatment might help,” he suggested.
Some experts were concerned by the less-than-forthright approach.
“That’s what I call lying,” said Ted Kaptchuk, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University. “I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it would be unacceptable in the U.S.”
The American Medical Association warns that doctors who use placebos without telling their patients may undermine their trust and cause harm.
Kaptchuk thought there might be a role for placebos, but said doctors haven’t yet figured out how to harness their potential. “In the U.S., we have a commitment to transparency,” he said.
“The Germans seem to be saying that it’s OK to lie a little bit.”
Still, he said using more placebos might wean people off drugs that haven’t proven to be very helpful and could also save health-care systems millions of dollars.
“The amount of drugs people are taking to really only get a [minor] benefit is astronomical,” Kaptchuk said. “A lot of doctors will say it’s easier to write a prescription but we’re not giving patients the best treatment possible when we rely on drugs.”
Last year, Kaptchuk and colleagues published a study that found people with irritable bowel syndrome who knowingly took a placebo still got better, providing some proof that doctors don’t always have to deceive patients when giving them dummy pills.
Surveys have determined up to half of the doctors in Denmark, Britain and the U.S. regularly give their patients placebos without telling them.