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What’s a placebo?

More on pills: The BMJ released the results of a survey of 673 doctors that found that about half prescribe placebos to their patients.

Not literally sugar pills but vitamins and headache pills. Medicines that aren’t typically used for a given condition that might benefit the patient, is the way the survey question was phrased.

Questions abound: What’s a placebo? Do patients who don’t know the medication is a placebo do better than those who do? Than those who are prescribed nothing? When is okay for doctors to do this? Is it ever okay?

Dr. Howard Brody, director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch, in Galveston, trumped others quoted in the story with this wisdom:

“Doctors should resist using placebos, because they reinforce the deleterious notion that when something is the matter with you, you will not get better unless you swallow pills.”

  • Discover What You Think

    Placebo is a latin word that means, ‘I will please’. A doctor pleases a patient by giving them a placebo if the doctor believe that the perception by the patient of their medical condition does not exist, although this is uncertain in itself. Hence the doctor gives the patient a placebo to please the patient instead of debating the patient regarding the need to restore their health that may not require restoration.

    Due to the subject-expantacy effect, the patient’s symptoms are often altered by a placebo doe to the patient’s beliefs and expectations. Or possibly time passes after ingesting a placebo for the patient to recover, regardless.

    While deceptive often, there is a benefit in certain medical cases where a placebo is beneficial and appropriate, I believe. For example, giving a prescription for an antibiotic to a patient who has a suspected viral infection clearly is more inappropriate than a placebo.

    Dan Abshear


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