Doctor Do Little: Has Your Doctor Prescribed a Placebo?

Dr Pill PlaceboYour family doctor has probably given a placebo to at least one patient. This is according to a survey published in PLOS One, which found that most family doctors hand out a placebo at some point in their career.

Of 783 GPs polled, 97% admitted that they have advised a patient to take a sugar pill or treatment with no established efficacy for the ailment they came in with. Roughly one in 10 of the GPs reported giving a patient a sugar pill or an injection of salty water rather than a real medicine at some time in their career, whilst one in 100 of them even admitted that they did this at least once a week. However, the study authors, from the University of Oxford and the University of Southampton, asserted that doctors are still doing this with family wellness in mind, and are not simply trying to deceive patients.

According to the Royal College of GPs, there is a place for placebos in medicine, but some may be inappropriate and could cause side effects or issues such as drug resistance. Antibiotics for suspected viral infections, for example, was one of the placebo treatments identified in the study but not only are these powerless against viruses, but doctors are actually told not to use them. Yet the placebo effect, in which you get better just because you’ve taken something, can be very strong. Studies have found that even when IBS patients take a dummy pill knowingly, they still report wellness improvements.

Dr Clare Gerada, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, commented that, as long as placebos don’t cause harm to a patient’s wellbeing, and aren’t expensive, they’re perfectly acceptable to use. ‘Lots of doctors use them and they can help people. If you think about it, a kiss on the cheek when you fall over is a placebo,’ she said. ‘But there are risks. Not all of the placebo treatments that the researchers looked at in this study are inert. If you take too many vitamins, for example, some can cause harm.’ She added that it is never acceptable to fob patients off with an ineffectual treatment, ‘But admitting to your patient that you do not know exactly what is going on, but that a therapy might help is.’

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