Would you be upset to find out that the medication your doctor prescribed you was actually a sugar pill? Or that your doctor knowingly performed a test or examination that was unnecessary? If you think there’s no chance this has happened to you, think again. A new survey of primary care physicians in the UK revealed that 97 percent of them report that they’ve prescribed placebos to patients during their careers. And a similar study of US doctors done in 2008 found that half prescribed placebo treatments regularly, and 62 percent believed this practice to be ethical. But don’t jump to feelings of betrayal just yet. There are actually good reasons why doctors are prescribing placebos – and not telling you about it.
What is a placebo? In the case of the survey of physicians in the UK, a placebo is defined as either unpure or pure. Unpure placebos (prescribed by 97 percent of UK doctors) are treatments that are unproven, such as antibiotics for viral infections or a physical exam or blood test that the doctor doesn’t believe to be necessary, but performs anyway. A pure placebo is a treatment without any active ingredients, like a pill made of sugar or an injection of plain saline solution, and only 12 percent of doctors reported prescribing these. In the survey of US doctors, most of the placebos the doctors prescribed were over-the-counter pain relievers, like aspirin, or vitamins.
Why do doctors prescribe placebos? Many do because they consider the placebo to have the potential for effective treatment of a patient’s condition, despite not being a conventional choice. Another reason for prescribing placebos is to give the patient peace of mind. It’s believed that, when there are no better options available to treat an illness, prescribing a placebo to a patient could put them at ease enough to allow his or her body to heal itself, otherwise known as the placebo effect. And because the belief that you are receiving an effective drug or an essential treatment is key to that peace of mind, doctors must withhold the truth in order for the placebo effect to be possible and for the patient to get better.
So, while doctors are not being malicious in not informing patients about what they’re prescribed, and placebo treatments are often effective, is it ethical for a doctor to intentionally mislead a patient? It’s a complex question that is still being debated among the medical community today.
Do you believe prescribing placebos is ethical, or should doctors always maintain transparency with their patients? Tell us your thoughts below.