Study: Half of doctors use placebo

October 24, 2008 — 10:26am ET |
By Tracy Staton

Take a couple of sugar pills and call me in the morning? Apparently, many doctors aren’t bothering with aspirin anymore; instead, they’re using placebo treatments on some patients. And the very nature of a placebo means that the patient often isn’t in the know.

According to a new study published today in the online version of BMJ, about half of American doctors say they regularly give patients placebo treatments, usually drugs or vitamins that won’t really help their condition. The researchers targeted 1,200 internists and rheumatologists; 679 responded, and of those, 62 percent said they believed using placebo is ethically acceptable. They said they used placebo treatments several times a month, and usually described the pill or injection as “a potentially beneficial medicine not typically used for your condition.”

Most used actual medications; 41 percent used painkillers, 13 percent used antibiotics, and 13 percent used sedatives. Others used vitamins, saline injections and actual sugar pills. If a new drugmaker gets its way, these docs could have the opportunity to prescribe Obecalp, a drug candidate that’s actually just an official placebo.

Some ethicists, however, say using placebo as a “shortcut” isn’t acceptable. And the American Medical Association says that docs have to explain treatment to patients. So maybe that aspirin ploy wasn’t so bad after all.

– read the story in the Washington Post

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