Is your doctor giving you placebo drugs?

When we visit our local GPs, many of us only feel as if we have been properly dealt with if we leave with a prescription for appropriate medication. But how would you feel if you found out that your doctor had issued you a placebo drug, instead of a medicine that have some chance of working?

Picture: SPL

Picture: SPL

For those unfamiliar with the term, a placebo is a kind of treatment that has no established proven medical efficacy, and a placebo effect is where it is the thought that a treatment has been prescribed or provided, that actually promotes a therapeutic effect.

So, think this could never happen in your doctor’s surgery? Think again, as in a recent survey, a whopping 97% of 783 GPs admitted that they had recommended a sugar pill or a placebo for the ailment their patient came in with.

Although the authors of the PLOS One study say this may not be a bad thing, and the Royal College of GPs agree, saying that there is a place for placebos in medicine, some ailments do require proper medication, and are not appropriate for the substitution of a placebo.

One such example is the use of antibiotics for suspected viral infections. Antibiotics are not used for the treatment of viruses, and doctors should not use them, but the study found that some GP’s were prescribing them.

The study also found that around one in 10 of the GPs admitting to giving a patient a sugar pill or an injection of salty water rather than a real medicine, but this was over the course of their whole career, however one in 100 of them said they did this at least once a week.

A large majority of the GPs questioned said that they had ‘provided patients with treatments, like supplements, probiotics and complementary medicines, that were unproven for their medical condition’. And perhaps more shockingly, three-quarters said they had actually offered unproven treatments on a daily or weekly basis.

Dr Jeremy Howick, co-author of the study that was carried out by the University of Oxford and the University of Southampton, was quick to point out that the study was not about ‘doctors deceiving patients’.

The placebo effect can have powerful benefits, with patients who expect a cure garnering results, even when they know they are taking a dummy pill. Many things appear to influence how greatly the placebo effect can work, from the size, colour and branding of the drug.

But there are some that believe that the use of placebos can undermine the doctor-patient relationship. How would you feel if you found out that you were being prescribed a placebo drug for example? Would you feel cheated or happy that the drug had worked?

Dr Clare Gerada, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, thinks that it is perfectly acceptable to use a placebo as long as it does not cause harm and is not expensive.

“Lots of doctors use them and they can help people. If you think about it, a kiss on the cheek when you fall over is a placebo. But there are risks. Not all of the placebo treatments that the researchers looked at in this study are inert. If you take too many vitamins, for example, some can cause harm.”

There should be a cut off point however, if the placebo treatment proves to be ineffective.