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Study: Placebos Can Work Even if Patients Know They’re Placebos

December 27th, 2010 12:56 admin Leave a comment Go to comments

You’ve heard of the placebo effect—the tendency for patients who receive a phony treatment like a sugar pill to feel better just because they think the treatment will help them. That standard definition relies on deception. Surely the placebo effect doesn’t work if you tell the patients they’re taking placebos, right?

Not necessarily, a new study finds. And, as DISCOVER blogger Ed Yong notes, this brings up an interesting ethical question:

Can doctors justifiably prescribe placebos to their patients? The standard answer is no. Doing so patronises the patient, undermines their trust, and violates the principles of informed consent. It compromises the relationship between doctor and patient. At worst, it could do harm.

But many of these arguments are based on the idea that placebo effects depend on belief; people must expect that treatments will work in order to experience any benefits. For a doctor to prescribe a placebo, they’d need to deceive. But according to Ted Kaptchuk from Harvard Medical School, deception may not be necessary. In a clinical trial, he found that patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) felt that their symptoms improved when they took placebo pills, even if they were told that the pills were inactive.

For plenty more about this, check out the rest of Ed’s post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Image: flickr/Fillmore Photography

Source: Study: Placebos Can Work Even if Patients Know They’re Placebos

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