There has been an ongoing debate about placebos on SBM, both in the articles and in the comments. What does it mean that a treatment has been shown to be “no better than placebo?” If our goal is for patients to feel better and they feel better with placebos, why not prescribe them? Do placebos actually do anything useful? What can science tell us about why a patient might report diminished pain after taking an inert sugar pill? The subject is complex and prone to misconceptions. A recent podcast interview offers a breakthrough in understanding.
On her Brain Science Podcast Dr. Ginger Campbell interviewed Dr. Fabrizio Benedetti, a physician and clinical neurophysiologist who is one of the world’s leading researchers on the neurobiology of placebos. A transcript of the interview [PDF] is available on her website for those who prefer reading to listening. The information Dr. Benedetti presents and the expanded remarks by Dr. Campbell after the interview go a long way towards explaining the placebo phenomenon and its consequences for clinical medicine. Dr. Campbell also includes a handy list of references. I’ll try to provide a summary of the main points, but I recommend reading or listening to the original.
A common misconception is that the response to placebos is a purely subjective psychological response involving only the cortical level of the brain; but evidence is accumulating that real, measurable, objective subcortical neurophysiologic phenomena are involved. One of the first hints was a 1978 study showing that the placebo response to pain could be blocked by naloxone, a narcotic antagonist drug, indicating that the placebo must have actually caused an increase in endogenous opioids. (more…)
In 1925, Francis Peabody famously said “The secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.” A new book by Norman Makous, MD, a cardiologist who has practiced for 60 years, is a cogent reminder of that principle.
In Time to Care: Personal Medicine in the Age of Technology, Dr. Makous tackles a big subject. He attempts to show how modern medicine got to where it is today, what’s wrong with it, and how to fix it. For me, the best part of the book is the abundance of anecdotes showing how medicine has changed since Dr. Makous graduated from medical school in 1947. He gives many examples of what it was like to treat patients before technology and effective medications were introduced. He describes a patient who died of ventricular fibrillation before defibrillators were invented, the first patient ever to survive endocarditis at his hospital (a survival made possible by penicillin), a polio epidemic before polio had been identified as an infectious disease, the rows of beds in the tuberculosis sanitariums that no longer exist because we have effective treatments for TB. He tells funny stories: the patient who was examined with a fluoroscope and told the doctor he felt much better after that “treatment.” He describes setting up the first cardiac catheterization lab in his area. No one who reads this book can question the value of scientific medicine’s achievements between 1947 and 2010. Today we can do ever so much more to improve our patients’ survival and health. But in the abundance of technological possibilities, the crucial human factor has been neglected.
Individualized care, which involves the use of science-inspired technology, is not personal care. Alone, it is incomplete. It does not provide the necessary reassurance that can only be provided through a trusted physician who focuses upon the totality of the person and not just upon a narrow technological application to a disease. Time and personal commitment are needed to build the mutual understanding and trust that are fundamental to personal care….the continued acceleration of science, technology, and cost has intruded on personal care in our country. This has also occurred during a time in which American individualism and its accompanying sense of entitlement have become more of a cult than ever before. In the absence of personal attention, patients demand more testing, but testing does not satisfy the need for personal interaction.
Makous invokes the Golden Rule: “Over the course of my career, I learned to treat patients as I would like to be treated under similar circumstances.” (more…)
One of the criticisms of modern medicine is that doctors prescribe too many pills. That’s true. Patients and doctors sometimes get caught up in a mutual misunderstanding. The patient assumes that he needs a prescription, and the doctor assumes that the patient wants a prescription. But sometimes patients don’t either need or want a prescription.
I’ll use myself as an illustration. I get occasional episodes of funny, blurry spots in my visual field that gradually expand to a sparkling zigzag pattern and go away after 20 minutes. They are typical scintillating scotomas, the aura that precedes some migraines. I am lucky because I never get the headache. My doctor said we could try to prevent my symptoms with the same medications we use to prevent migraine, but there was no need to treat them from a medical standpoint. Nothing bad would happen if we didn’t treat. I told her I didn’t want them treated. They are a minor annoyance; I can carry on with my normal activities, even reading, throughout the episodes, and I have no desire to take pills with potential side effects and with the cost and the hassle of remembering when to take them.
If it had been a typical patient and a typical doctor, the sequence of events might have been very different. The patient might have been more frightened by the strange phenomenon than I was. (I thought the weird tricks my brain could play on me were fascinating and fun to watch, not scary.) The patient might have desperately wanted those threatening symptoms to go away without understanding how insignificant and non-threatening they really were. The doctor might have assumed the patient wanted them to go away. The pills might have been offered and accepted with little thought. (more…)