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Placebo Therapies: Are They Ethical?

Is it ethical to overstate the efficacy of a treatment option, if it might lead to a patient’s enhanced experience of that treatment? Your response to this question may reveal the degree to which you favor Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Let me explain.

As far as I can tell, no CAM treatment has been proven effective beyond placebo. (If you’re not convinced of this, I suggest you take a look at Barker Bausell’s book on the subject.) That means that treatments like acupuncture, homeopathy, Reiki, energy healing, Traditional Chinese Medicine (such as cupping), and others (like “liver flushes”) perform about as well as placebos (inert alternatives) in head-to-head studies. Therefore, the effects of these treatments cannot be explained by inherent mechanisms of action, but rather the mind’s perception of their value. In essence, the majority of CAM treatments are likely to be placebo therapies, with different levels of associated ritual.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that CAM therapies are in fact placebos – the question then becomes, is it ethical to prescribe placebos to patients?  It seems that many U.S. physicians believe that it is not appropriate to overstate potential therapeutic benefits to patients. In fact, the AMA strictly prohibits such a practice:

“Physicians may use [a] placebo for diagnosis or treatment only if the patient is informed of and agrees to its use.”

Moreover, a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes:

“Outside the setting of clinical trials, there is no justification for the use of placebos.”

However, there is some wavering on the absolute contraindication of placebos. A recent survey conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic asked physicians if it was permissible to give a dextrose tablet to a non-diabetic patient with fibromyalgia if that tablet was shown to be superior to no treatment in a clinical trial. In this case 62% of respondents said that it would be acceptable to give the pill.

The authors note:

“Before 1960, administration of inert substances to promote placebo effects or to satisfy patients’ expectations of receiving a prescribed treatment was commonplace in medical practice. With the development of effective pharmaceutical interventions and the increased emphasis on informed consent, the use of placebo treatments in clinical care has been widely criticized. Prescribing a placebo, it is claimed, involves deception and therefore violates patients’ autonomy and informed consent. Advocates of placebo treatments argue that promoting the placebo effect might be one of the most effective treatments available for many chronic conditions and can be accomplished without deception.”

How do you feel about placebos? Are they a legitimate option in some cases, or a violation of patient autonomy and informed consent?
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Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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