Encouraging News on Placebos

In one of the most encouraging articles I’ve read for a long time[1], 97% of a sample of 783 UK family doctors reported in a study carried out by the Universities of Oxford and Southampton that they had given a placebo to at least one of their patients. Some said they do so on a regular basis. Half had told their patients that the remedies had helped other patients, without specifically telling them they were prescribing a placebo.

This is a huge step forward towards general recognition of the role of the mind in health, ill-health and healing, and acceptance of the potential of informational remedies. Apparently even the UK Royal College of General Practitioners now acknowledges that there is a place for placebos in medicine.

A co-author of the study, Dr Jeremy Howick, was quoted as saying, ‘This is not about doctors deceiving patients,’ (which is how Big Pharma has often characterised the use of placebos) but that ‘doctors clearly believe that placebos can help patients’.

Evenso, the BBC report still refers to ‘sham’ treatments’ and ‘unproven treatments’ as if the author, Michelle Roberts, is still not really convinced.  She writes that three quarters of doctors claimed to offer ‘unproven treatments’ such as complementary therapies on a daily or weekly basis, and even refers to ‘fake’ acupuncture (which has been used successfully for over five thousand years)  in such terms. She misses the point – in most cases it is not the medicine that brings about healing, but the patient’s own healing abilities restoring equilibrium and removing the resistance to full health.

Research shows that placebos are most effective a relieving subjective conditions such as pain, and their effect is based on cultivating the patient’s expectations of a cure. Hence the size, colour and packaging of placebos all play a role, as does the presentation and manner of the practitioner who prescribes them.

There are still those who consider the use of placebos as ‘fooling’ patients by giving them ‘useless’ pills and potions, even if they help bring about a cure. Some consider them dangerous because they deny the patient ‘effective’ treatment (by which they mean bio-chemical intervention), and others that they damage to doctor-patient relationship. Others claim that some ‘placebo’ treatments, such as prescribing vitamin supplements, are not inert, in that taking too much of some vitamins is harmful.

Then there are those who dismiss phenomena such as ‘spontaneous remission’ as pure chance and unworthy of investigation when in fact they could throw invaluable light on the healing process.

But in the longer term there is much more at stake here than whether placebos are unethical or ineffective, or whether this person or that person gets better and stays well. Our view of mind-body and informational medicine is related to our understanding of what human beings actually are and how we function. This is the greater prize.

©David Lawrence Preston, 18.10.2018

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[1] BBC website 21st March 2013, also widely reported on radio and TV.

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