During World War II, a nurse told a wounded soldier he was getting a strong shot of morphine, when in actual fact the morphine supply was running low and all the soldier got was a syringe full of salt water. The soldier’s belief that he was receiving the painkiller was enough to relieve his distress and prevent shock from setting in. And so began the phenomenon known as the placebo effect.
Modern day placebos consist of sugar pills that are given to members of control groups during clinical trials of new drugs. For the placebo effect to be of any value, the person must believe that they may be ingesting the real deal medication. More recently, more and more clinical trials of new drugs have been put on hold because of how “effective” the placebos are in treating symptoms of the disease the drugs are being tested for. Does this mean that the power of the human mind has the ability to cure the body?
Doctors sometimes prescribe placebo drugs or courses of treatment because they believe it will be a more effective way of relieving patients of symptoms, without the negative side effects of the bona fide drug. This poses an ethical question because, for a placebo to work, the patient cannot know that it’s a placebo – so effectively, their doctor is deceiving them. However, research on placebos has shown that people taking them actually demonstrate measurable recovery from an illness or condition. It really appears to be a mind over matter situation.
One way to resolve the issue over ethics is to agree that the patient can decide whether they permit the doctor to use placebo therapy from time to time, even though they are seeing the doctor and receiving prescribed medication on their medical cover. They won’t know when they may be subjected to a placebo, but they know there is a possibility that any treatment could be inactive. There are many pros and cons of placebo therapy, so it’s best to discuss your doctor’s policy on prescribing inactive medications.
Image courtesy of: www.scientificamerican.com