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Posts Tagged Placebos

Answering Our Critics, Part 2 of 2: What’s the Harm?

Last week I posted a list of 30 rebuttals to many of the recurrent criticisms that are made by people who don’t like what we say on SBM. I thought #30 deserved its own post; this is it. At the end, I’ve added a few items to the original list.

What’s the harm in people trying CAM? Science-based medicine has been criticized for being too rigid and intolerant. Why do we insist on randomized placebo-controlled trials to prove that a treatment is safe and effective? Isn’t it enough that patients tell us they feel better? Isn’t that what we all want, for our patients to feel better? Even if the treatment only works as a placebo, isn’t that a good thing? What’s the harm in that?

The albuterol/placebo study

I would argue that we don’t just want our patients to think they are better, we want them to actually be better. A study that illustrates that principle has been discussed on this blog before, here and here.

A group of patients using an effective albuterol asthma inhaler was compared to 2 placebo groups (a placebo inhaler group and a sham acupuncture group), and to a group that got no treatment at all. Patients reported the same relief of symptoms with each of the two placebo controls as with the albuterol inhaler; all three groups reported feeling significantly better than the no-treatment group. It could be argued that placebos are an effective treatment for the subjective symptoms of asthma. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Placebo Prescriptions

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:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Incorporating Placebos into Mainstream Medicine

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…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Book & movie reviews, Medical Ethics

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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: General, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Bad Science: Four Things I Learned From Dr. Ben Goldacre

“You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.”

– Ben Goldacre, MD

Dr. Ben Goldacre is the author of the popular Guardian column, Bad Science. He has recently published a book by the same name. Bad Science received a very favorable review from the British Medical Journal and although I was tempted to write my own review for Science Based Medicine, I decided to cherry pick some concepts from the book instead. I hope you’ll enjoy the cherries.

Honesty & Placebos

As you can imagine, any good book about bad science must devote at least one chapter to the concept of placebos. We are all quite familiar with placebos, and how squarely the vast majority (and some would argue all) of complementary and alternative medicines fit into that category.  Ben surprised me with a couple of points that I hadn’t considered previously. Firstly, that alerting patients to the fact that you’re planning to prescribe them a placebo does not necessarily negate its effects, and secondly that no matter how skeptical or intelligent you are – all humans are subject to placebo effects.

Ben references a 1965 study from Johns Hopkins [Park et al., Archives of General Psychiatry] in which patients were explicitly told that they were going to receive a sugar pill (with no medicine in it at all) as treatment for their neuroses. The researchers reported substantial improvements in many of the study subjects’ symptoms.

This is the script that the physicians were to use to explain the placebos to the study subjects:

Mr. Doe… we have a week between now and your next appointment, and we would like to do something to give you some relief from your symptoms. Many different kinds of tranquilizers and similar pills have been used for conditions such as yours, and many of them have helped. Many people with your kind of condition have also been helped by what are sometimes called ‘sugar pills,’ and we feel that a so-called sugar pill may help you too. Do you know what a sugar pill is? A sugar pill is a pill with no medicine in it at all. I think this pill will help you as it has helped so many others. Are you willing to try this pill?

Wow. I was under the impression that the efficacy of the placebo was in the person’s belief that it was a legitimate medicine/therapy. Perhaps it only matters that the prescribing physician believes it might help? Perhaps snake oil salesmen are wasting their time on linguistic and pseudoscientific mental gymnastics?

Of course, the “gymnastics” do help. Other research has shown that the more complex the associated placebo ritual, the more potent its effects (such as piercing the skin with fine needles in many different locations). Nonetheless, I was surprised that an honest and accurate description of a placebo does not necessarily negate its effects.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, General, Herbs & Supplements, Science and the Media

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