I used to wonder if there are more hypochondriacs in this world than there are legitimately sick people. A recent NY Times article suggests that that I might be onto something.
A study involving 679 internists and rheumatologists has found that half of doctors routinely prescribe placebos for their patients. Why? For “their effect on patients’ psyches, not their bodies.” Oftentimes the placebos are prescribed to treat symptoms the doctors refer to as “psychosomatic,” or imaginary. While the symptoms could very well be real, the cause of the pain is indeterminable.
Most commonly, doctors in the study prescribed headache pills and vitamins but a number of doctors reported prescribing antibiotics and sedatives. While these placebos are still medication, they were drugs not typically used for the patients’ conditions, and doctors were quoted as describing them to patients as “a medicine not typically used for your condition but might benefit you.” Interestingly, doctors prescribe placebos and, suddenly, patients are feeling pretty good.
Ethicists are distrurbed. “Must people be deceived into believing that a treatment is active for a placebo to work?”
Answer: YES! Sadly, many a person will hang on the words of his doctor, taking his words as oath. The human mind is powerful. It’s not surprising that one’s body can bend to its mind’s will. The phrase “mind over matter” came into existence for a reason. Why not prescribe a lesser option and see what happens? Were our bodies created to ingest the substances we think we need when we’re in pain? One would think not. In a world where doctor visits with psychosomatic symptoms are sky-rocketing, perhaps placebos aren’t such a bad idea after all.
[Note: While I am not a hypochondriac, my pain tolerance is not known to be particularly high, so I’d likely be the perfect patient for placebos.]