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‘It’s Fake, But See If It Helps’—And It Does

December 27, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics, Practice Management
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OK, this is just weird. A group of patients gets dummy pills with no medication whatsoever. They’re even told that the pills are “like sugar pills” and contain no medicine. They take the pills for three weeks—and report almost twice as much symptom relief as reported by a control grouip that got no treatment (not even fake treatment).

In other words, placebos work even when patients know that they’re getting placebos. Imagine the implications. Will it even be possible anymore to prosecute someone for selling sugar pills online as “generic Viagra” or even as a cancer cure?

This study actually happened. The researchers were from Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, both in Boston. The patients were suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. Among the placebo group, 59 percent reported symptom relief, compared with 35 percent among the control group. The results were published last week in PLoS One.

“Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle,” said Ted Kaptchuk, ODM (Oriental doctor of medicine), an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study. “We told the patients that they didn’t have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills.” Dr. Kaptchuk was quoted in a medical school news release.

Obviously, this doesn’t relate directly to radiology. (Unless someone’s working on a study about whether staring really hard at a patient’s body allows you to see what’s inside.) But it does make one wonder about medical research.

“I didn’t think it would work,” said Anthony Lembo, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess, an expert on irritable bowel syndrome, and senior author of the study. “I felt awkward asking patients to literally take a placebo. But to my surprise, it seemed to work for many of them.”

Dr. Kaptchuk, who has a strong interest in Asian medicine and other medical traditions outside the Western mainstream, said, “These findings suggest that rather than mere positive thinking, there may be significant benefit to the very performance of medical ritual. I’m excited about studying this further.”

Related seminar: Imaging Advances: Abdominal, Thoracic, Skeletal

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