According to Merck (2012), a placebo is a substance that is made to resemble a drug but does not contain an active ingredient like the drug. It is, in essence, a sugar pill, and it does not have any compounds with which to treat a condition or disease. Sometimes, though, if it is offered to a patient with a positive indication of its potential help, the patient will experience benefits – this is known as the “placebo effect.” This is true, too, with many alternative therapies that lack scientific evidence of their effectiveness.
While some doctors feel that as long as the patient views a placebo treatment as potentially helpful it is all right to prescribe, most U.S. physicians believe it is not appropriate to overstate potential therapeutic benefits – in short, they will not recommend or prescribe any placebo treatment. In fact, the American Medical Association (AMA) strictly prohibits such a practice: “Physicians may use [a] placebo for diagnosis or treatment only if the patient is informed of and agrees to its use.” In addition, a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that: “Outside the setting of clinical trials, there is no justification for the use of placebos.” (Science-Based Medicine, 2012)
I know, though, that a placebo effect can be effective, even in the absence of an active drug, but I believe that patients have a right to know about their treatments and how they are expected to work. This includes both therapeutic and side effects. I believe it is unethical for a physician to deliberately withhold treatment information from a patient, regardless of its potential outcome.
I have never experienced a positive placebo effect, but I have experienced negative ones. When given a particular drug, it is not uncommon for me to develop side effects above and beyond what is generally indicated for what I am taking, no matter how mild the drug or how unlikely the effects are to occur. It may be that I have come to “expect the worst” from such drugs. I would, however, be willing to receive a placebo drug without prior knowledge in the hope that I would experience a positive effect. I believe the mind can do miraculous things if given the opportunity.
“Placebos.” Placebos: Overview of Drugs: Merck Manual Home Edition, and Placebos: Concepts in Pharmacotherapy: Merck Manual Professional. Web. 8 Oct. 2012.
“Placebo Therapies: Are They Ethical?” Science-Based Medicine. Val Jones. 2012. Web. 8 Oct., 2012.