Doctors Give Placebo Treatments Often

Some 50 percent of physicians in America provide their patients with placebo medications without informing them, according to a recent investigation. "It's a disturbing finding," said Franklin G. Miller, director of the research ethics program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and one of the authors of the paper, published in the British Medical Journal. "There is an element of deception here which is contrary to the principle of informed consent."

NIH researchers mailed surveys to a randomly chosen group of U.S. internists and rheumatologists. Of the 679 responses, 62 percent endorsed the ethical acceptability of prescribing placebos, which the study defined as treatments that rely for their effectiveness on patients" faith in them, not on the proven value of the pills themselves.

Common placebos - which studies have shown often actually improve patients' condition - include painkillers, vitamins, antibiotics, sedatives and sugar pills. Half of the physician respondents said they used placebos several times per month. Almost 70 percent of these told their patients the pills were "potentially beneficial medicine not typically used for your condition."

 Only 5 percent of doctors said they were up-front with their patients and identified the treatment as a placebo. In addition, almost 60 percent of the respondents said they would endorse giving sugar pills to sufferers of chronic pain if research showed this to be more effective than no treatment at all.

 Jon Tilburt, the lead author of the study, which was supported by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Department of Bioethics at NIH, said the results can't necessarily be applied to other medical specialists like neurologists or pediatricians. Additional research would be needed.


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