A survey of UK doctors, performed by researchers at the University of Oxford, revealed 97 percent have prescribed “impure” placebo treatments to their patients at least once during their career, while 12 percent have used “pure” placebos.
Examples of placebos are low-dose drugs, supplementing medications with vitamins or sugar pills, and performing a superfluous exam.
The difference between impure and pure placebos is impure treatments are unproven methods such as performing non-essential physical examinations or blood tests. These are executed in order to lull or reassure the patient something is being done, when in fact the practice is inapplicable to their condition.
A physician acquiescing to the demands of a patient for antibiotics to ineffectually treat a suspected viral infection is another example. However, the practice of over-prescribing or frequently doling out antibiotics is an irresponsible tactic as patients can eventually develop a resistance.
Pure placebo treatments are used to deceive a patient by posing sugar pills or saline shots as would-be medications, but they contain no active ingredients. The point is to have the individual believe they are receiving active treatment.
Although technically intended to trick the patient, the effort is not meant to be one committed out of malice, cruelty, or fraud. Placebos were mainly given to either induce positive psychological effects, known as the placebo effect, or because patients demanded the treatment.
The power of persuasion and assumption can be significant. There have been several incidences where patients’ illnesses resolved as a matter of the afflicted persons belief over the effectiveness of the treatment being received.
Additionally, placebos are used as controls for medical trials in order to properly gauge the effectiveness of experimental drugs. Typically patients are assigned medications, all unaware of who is receiving the target drug versus the placebo. Therefore the results reported to researchers are beneficial in determining the virulence of a disease versus the treatment being applied.
Oxford analysts randomly sampled doctors online, registered with the General Medical Council (GMC). Their survey returned 783 responses.
Ethical attitudes towards placebo usage varied among doctors, with 66 percent saying that pure placebos are ethically acceptable under certain circumstances and 33 percent saying placebos are never acceptable. Impure placebos were more widely accepted by 84 percent of doctors.
According to Dr. Jeremy Howick, co-lead author of the study from the University of Oxford, “The study shows that placebo use is widespread in the UK, and doctors clearly believe that placebos can help patients.”
The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research, the University of Oxford Department of Primary Health Care Sciences and The Southampton Complementary Medical Research Trust, and published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
Considering the UK results, do you think as many physicians are as guilty of utilizing a placebo treatment in the US? Have you ever suspected your doctor of performing a pointless exam or prescribing an ineffectual treatment? Have you ever demanded antibiotics from your doctor?
[Image via Shutterstock]