Michael Specter is a good science journalist. I particularly enjoyed his book, Denialism. In a recent New Yorker article he tackles the difficult question of the placebo effect in modern medicine. While he does a fair job of hitting upon the key points of this question, I think he missed some important aspects of this question and allowed the views of Ted Kaptchuk to overly influence the framing of the article. Specter fell for the typical journalist trap — frame the article around a charismatic “maverick”, complete with compelling anecdotes, bury the meat of legitimate skepticism deep in the article, but then bring it all back to the maverick in the end. Be sure to tell us how this is going to change everything. This is good story telling, but very problematic as science journalism.
Kaptchuk himself is an interesting character. He is heading Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. He has produced some good science on the placebo effect, but does not seem to want to draw the appropriate lessons from that research, and passes his bias on to Specter. From the article the quotes from Kaptchuk that most strike me are those about his personal experience with placebo medicine. Specter reports:
“There was no fucking way needles or herbs did anything for that woman’s ovaries,” he told me, still looking mystiﬁed, thirty-ﬁve years later. “It had to be some kind of placebo, but I had never given the idea of a placebo effect much attention. I had great respect for shamans—and I still do. I have always believed there is an important component of medicine that involves suggestion, ritual, and belief—all ideas that make scientists scream. Still, I asked myself, Could I have cured her? How? I mean, what could possibly have been the mechanism?”
Is it ever ethical to provide a placebo treatment? What about when that placebo is homeopathy? Last month I blogged about the frequency of placebo prescribing by physicians. I admitted my personal discomfort, stating I’d refuse to dispense any prescription that would require me to deceive the patient. The discussion continued in the comments, where opinions seemed to range from (I’m paraphrasing) “autonomy, shmatonomy, placebos works” to the more critical who likened placebo use to “treating adults like children.” Harriet Hall noted, “We should have rules but we should be willing to break them when it would be kinder to the patient, and would do no harm.” And on reflection, Harriet’s perspective was one that I could see myself accepting should I be in a situation like the one she described. It’s far easier to be dogmatic when you don’t have a patient standing in front of you. But the comments led me to consider possible situations where a placebo might actually be the most desirable treatment option. If I find some, should I be as dogmatic about homeopathy as I am about other placebos?
Nicely, Kevin Smith, writing in the journal Bioethics, examines the ethics of placebos, based on an analysis of homeopathy. Homeopathy is the ultimate placebo in routine use — most remedies contain only sugar and water, lacking a single molecule of any potentially medicinal ingredient. Smith’s paper, Against Homeopathy — A Utilitarian Perspective, is sadly behind a paywall. So I’ll try to summarize his analysis, and add my perspective as a health care worker who regularly encounters homeopathy.
Explanatory studies are done under controlled conditions to determine whether a treatment has any efficacy compared to a placebo. Pragmatic studies are designed to assess how the intervention performs in everyday real world practice. Pragmatic studies measure practical success but don’t determine actual efficacy: that requires a proper randomized controlled trial (RCT) with an appropriate control. Pragmatic studies have their place, but they can sometimes make an ineffective treatment look good: a phenomenon I have christened Cinderella Medicine.
Whether it’s acupuncture, homeopathy or the latest supplement, placebo effects can be difficult to distinguish from real effects. Today’s post sets aside the challenge of identifying placebo effects and look at how placebos are used in routine medical practice. I’ve been a pharmacist for almost 20 years, and have never seen a placebo in practice, where the patient was actively deceived by the physician and the pharmacist. So I was quite surprised to see some placebo usage figures cited by Tom Blackwell, writing in the National Post last week:
The practice is discouraged by major medical groups, considered unethical by many doctors and with uncertain benefit, but one in five Canadian physicians prescribes or hands out some kind of placebo to their often-unknowing patients, a new study suggests.
The article references a paper in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry which, sadly, does not have much of a web presence. The article continues:
In the Wall Street Journal last week was a particularly bad article by Melinda Beck about acupuncture. While there was token skepticism (by Edzard Ernst, of course, who is the media’s go-to expert for CAM), the article credulously reported the marketing hype of acupuncture proponents.
Toward the end of the article Beck admits that “some critics” claim that acupuncture provides nothing more than a placebo effect, but this was followed by the usual canard:
“I don’t see any disconnect between how acupuncture works and how a placebo works,” says radiologist Vitaly Napadow at the Martinos center. “The body knows how to heal itself. That’s what a placebo does, too.”
That is a bold claim, and very common among CAM proponents, especially acupuncturists. As the data increasingly shows that acupuncture (and other implausible treatments) provides no benefit beyond placebo, we hear the special pleading that placebos work also.
But is that true? It turns out there is a literature on the placebo effect itself, and the evidence suggests that placebos generally do not work.
It is my contention that terms such as “complementary and alternative medicine” and “integrative medicine” exist for two primary purposes. The first is marketing – they are an attempt at rebranding methods that do not meet the usual standards of unqualified “medicine”. The second is a very deliberate and often calculating attempt at creating a double standard.
We already have a standard of care within medicine, and although its application is imperfect its principles are clear – the best available scientific evidence should be used to determine that medical interventions meet a minimum standard of safety and effectiveness. Regulations have largely (although also imperfectly) reflected that principle, as have academia, publishing standards, professional organizations, licensing boards, and product regulation.
With the creation of the new brand of medicine (CAM and integrative) came the opportunity to change the rules of science and medicine to create an alternative standard, one tailor made for those modalities that do not meet existing scientific and even ethical standards for medicine. This manifests in many ways – the NCCAM was created so that these modalities would have an alternate standard for garnering federal dollars for research. Many states now have “health care freedom laws” which create a separate standard of care (actually an elimination of the standard of care) for self-proclaimed “alternative” practices.
Alternative medicine by definition is medicine that has not been shown to work any better than placebo. Patients think they are helped by alternative medicine. Placebos, by definition, do “please” patients. We would all like to please our patients, but we don’t want to lie to them. Is there a compromise? Is there a way we can ethically elicit the same placebo response that alternative theorists elicit by telling their patients fairy tales about qi, subluxations, or the memory of water?
Psychiatrist Morgan Levy has written a book entitled Placebo Medicine. It’s available free online. In it, he makes an intriguing case for incorporating the best alternative medicine placebo treatments into mainstream medicine.
In a light, entertaining style, he covers the placebo effect, suggestibility, and the foibles of the human thought processes that allow us to believe a treatment works when it doesn’t.
“Thinking like a human” is not a logical way to think but it is not a stupid way to think either. You could say that our thinking is intelligently illogical. Millions of years of evolution did not result in humans that think like a computer. It is precisely because we think in an intelligently illogical way that our predecessors were able to survive… [by acting on quick assumptions rather than waiting for comprehensive, definitive data]… We have evolved to survive, not to play chess.
He offers evidence from scientific studies indicating that belief in a treatment and the power of suggestion can have actual physiologic consequences such as production of endorphins or changes on brain imaging studies. He spices his narrative with colorful stories, including anecdotes from his own sex life and an impassioned plea (tongue in cheek?) for everyone to drink coffee for its proven benefits. (more…)