It’s All in Your Head

NOVEMBER 14, 2008
The Wall Street Journal

About one in two American doctors say they prescribe placebos to their patients, and more than two-thirds believe it permissible to do so, according to a new study from the National Institutes of Health. Surveys of physicians in other countries, including Israel, Denmark and the U.K., have found similar results. These revelations, published last month in the prestigious BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal, seem disquieting, even unethical. After all, when doctors prescribe a medication, we trust them to dispense the real thing.

In their coverage of the new study, the media portrayed placebo use as commonplace — “For Many Doctors, Placebos Are an Answer” said the Washington Post — and even a guilty indulgence: “Many MDs Admit, Privately, Giving Patients Placebos,” as the Star-Ledger put it. It would be no surprise if most people concluded that arrogant, impatient doctors were cheating them or pushing their concerns aside. In this light, the placebo story was simply further evidence that the cherished doctor-patient relationship is becoming a relic of the past.

But before we rush to judgment about placebos and the physicians who use them, let us examine what doctors actually mean when they say they occasionally use placebos and why so many of them find these pseudomedications valuable. More…