Howard Brody, MD, PhD, is the John P. McGovern Centennial Chair in Family Medicine and Director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston.
For years, doctors thought that placebos like sugar pills were totally inert, just something to be given out to mollify a demanding patient without any expected health benefits. Gradually, both physicians and medical researchers came to realize that such treatments can sometimes cause substantial improvement of symptoms, even when there’s no chemical or other biomedical explanation for what occurs—a phenomenon called the placebo effect. In a recent commentary in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Cory Harris and Amir Raz of McGill summarize the data from recent surveys of physician use of placebos in clinical practice in several nations.
They find that prescribing drugs like antibiotics or supplements like vitamins as placebos is now a widespread practice. This is happening without any public guidelines or regulations for placebos’ use, which raises an important question: How, exactly, should physicians be using the placebo effect to help patients?
This discussion is necessary because the understanding of the placebo effect is changing, and fast. In the past decade, scientists have used brain-scanning to see just which parts of the brain, and in what order, become active when a patient takes a placebo pill for various conditions. Other investigators have looked more closely at the treatment environment and sorted out what parts of that environment rev up a placebo response. For example, seeing a nurse inject a painkiller into your IV line gives you roughly twice as much pain relief as having the same dose of medicine administered by a hidden pump. Getting acupuncture treatment from a warm and friendly practitioner works better than the same treatment from a cold, distant one. There’s even some preliminary evidence to suggest that patients experience positive placebo effects even when told frankly that the pills they are taking are placebos, with no active chemical ingredients.
This research—and perhaps personal experience—has changed the way doctors view the importance of their patients’ mental states. Surveys from 20–30 years ago found a general belief among physicians that placebos were completely inert and powerless, and that if any good effect occurred, it was only in the patient’s imagination. The newer surveys, one of which I participated in, show a small revolution in physician thinking about mind-body relations. Physicians today generally agree that placebos can actually have a positive effect on the patient’s body, and that mind-body medicine “works.” That’s important, and has not been sufficiently noted.