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Giving placebo pills could help patients

An honest approach to using fake treatments might not render them ineffective

OnMedica Staff

Tuesday, 05 August 2008

Doctors could steer patients away from unproven alternative therapies if they could use dummy pills, suggests Dutch research.

Oskar van Deventer, a researcher from Leidschendam in the Netherlands points out that it is a well established medical fact that fake treatments do work.

If this is the case, he argues, doctors could include placebo pills in their medical armamentarium. But then the doctor might have to lie to the patient and this would present an ethical dilemma.

"On the one hand, the doctor does not want to lie to his patient. On the other hand, the effect of the fake treatment would diminish if the patient knows it is fake. For this reason, fake treatments are typically left to practitioners of so-called alternative medicine who are often not even aware of the ethical dilemma," he writes in the journal Medical Hypotheses.

However he believes this is not the case as telling the truth about the dummy treatment would not stop it from being effective. This type of treatment is called the ‘meta-placebo’ effect.

"This is based on the healing belief that even fake/placebo treatments have positive effects. That is, if both the doctor and the patient believe in the healing powers of the fake treatment, it does not matter that both know the treatment is fake," he says.

If such an effect does exist, it would solve a few complexities for today’s medics. They would not have to lie to patients when prescribing them placebos and by having such treatments at their disposal they could continue to regularly monitor patients’ symptoms whilst on the "treatment". The doctor could also help to prevent people from using alternative medicine, which can be both expensive and risky to health.

The hypothesis that the "meta-placebo" effect exists needs to be tested before such treatments can become evidence-based medicine.

Using the equivalent to the gold standard of the double blind trial would create a challenge for such research as would the dilemma over which condition to test it on, he says, but he calls on readers to help meet those challenges in testing the effect.

The article follows figures published by the Prescription Pricing Authority last month that show a fall in the prescribing of homeopathic remedies by GPs from 83,000 in 2005 to 49,300 in 2007.

However separately, a pilot study from five NHS homeopathic hospitals found 60% of the 1797 patients treated with homeopathic remedies reported an improvement in quality of life.

The top four most treated conditions were eczema, chronic fatigue syndrome, menopause and osteoarthritis. Amongst those four, the proportion of patients that reported an improvement in quality of life after six visits to the homeopath varied from 59.3% for chronic fatigue syndrome and 73.3% for menopause. Overall, 30 common conditions were being treated by homeopaths.

Medical Hypotheses 2008; 71: 335–9; Homeopathy 2008; 97: 114-121

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