Many Physicians Prescribe Placebos To Patients

Armen Hareyan's picture

About 45% of physicians at three US medical schools in theChicago area have prescribed placebos to patients, and 96% believethat patients can benefit from placebos, according to a studypublished on Thursday in the Journal of General InternalMedicine, Bloomberg/ArizonaDaily Star reports (Bloomberg/Arizona Daily Star,1/4). For the study, Rachel Sherman, a medical student at theUniversity ofChicago, and John Hickner, a professor of family medicine at theuniversity, sent a survey to 466 physicians at the University ofChicago, NorthwesternUniversity and Universityof Illinois-Chicago and received 231 responses (Steenhuysen,Reuters/Boston Globe,1/4).

According to the survey, physicians said that placeboscan help calm patients, supplement other medications, control pain,satisfy unnecessary requests for treatments and address complaintsfrom patients. Only 12% of respondents said that physicians shouldnever prescribe placebos to patients, the survey found (Ritter,Chicago Sun-Times,1/4).

The use of placebos raises ethical concerns because manyphysicians do not inform patients that their prescriptions likelywould not have any physical effects, study authors said. About 34% ofrespondents who have prescribed placebos described them as substancesthat "may help and will not hurt," compared with 19% whodescribed them as medications and 4% who described them as placebos,the survey found (Bloomberg/Arizona Daily Star,1/4).


In addition, about 48% of respondents said that theyprescribe medications to patients without any evidence of likelyeffectiveness, according to the survey (Chicago Sun-Times,1/4).


Sherman said, "It's not about what's inside the pill, it'sabout using the pill as a symbol of healing," adding, "Thedivision between mind and body is no longer being seen as distinct,and doctors believe that how patients think and feel can influencehealth" (Bloomberg/Arizona Daily Star, 1/4). Sheadded, "We may underestimate the body's natural healingpotential," adding, "This shows that doctors may thinkthat, too" (Reuters/Boston Globe, 1/4).

TheAmerican MedicalAssociation recommends that physicians prescribe placebos onlywith the informed consent of patients and not "merely to mollifya difficult patient" (Chicago Sun-Times, 1/4).

Reprinted with permission can view the entire KaiserDaily Health Policy Report, search the archives, andsign up for email delivery at The Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report ispublished for, a free service of The Henry J.Kaiser Family Foundation.

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