News: Canadian doctors prescribing placebo pills—and they work

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News: Canadian doctors prescribing placebo pills—and they work

Dummy drugs can do more than their name suggests. "Placebos have helped alleviate pain, depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, inflammatory disorders and even cancer," says Scientific American.

Some Canadian doctors are so confident in the effectiveness of placebo pills in treating some illnesses that they are prescribing them to patients without their knowledge. A new study from McGill University found that 20 percent of Canadian physicians hand out placebo pills to patients, and only 17 percent of that group would tell their patients the truth about their therapy. In the study, more than 600 doctors, almost half of which were psychiatrists, were surveyed. Doctors seem to be adopting the practice as an alternative to drugs, despite the fact that giving placebos is currently a professional taboo at best, and a serious violation of ethics and patients' trust at worst.

Whatever the professional and ethical implications, there is an ongoing discussion about the role of placebos in medical treatment. A stunning 2009 article about placebos in Wired brought the issue to the fore again, as research at the time was investigating how placebos encourage the mind to heal the body. That research built on work from half a century ago. A radical 1955 paper titled "The Powerful Placebo," published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that taking a pill, active or not, helped all the patients in the sample group. Surprisingly, even the hue of a pill can affect a patient's health, other research has shown (blue pills are better than red ones for blood pressure and lowering heart rates).

Today, more and more, drug makers and doctors are acknowledging that placebos could be integrated into the medical system—but in a more ethical manner. For one, doctors could be more upfront with patients, since, as noted in a recent article in the National Post, patients don't even need to believe that the drug is real for it to work. The pills have other subconscious effects. Dr. Ted Kaptuchuk of Harvard recently published a study that demonstrated IBS patients who took knowingly took placebos showed more improvement than a group that received no treatment.

Since the guidelines concerning the use of placebos are currently foggy, the fact that doctors are admitting to using deception when treating patients is disconcerting. But, these doctors' push to use more placebos could be a movement in the right direction in a society that some would argue is over-medicalized.

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