The Lie that Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos?

The Lie that Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos?
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About half of doctors admit to intentionally deceiving patients by prescribing placebos, but might the ends justify the means?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

A controversial paper was recently published arguing that it’s not only okay for doctors to lie to patients, but that we have “a duty to deceive.” Unlike what you see on television, “roughly half the time a patient” walks into a doctor’s office, “a firm diagnosis cannot be made.” Half the time, the doctor doesn’t know what’s going on. So, why not give the patient a sugar pill, a homeopathic remedy—which is often just that, an actual sugar pill—or a flower remedy; whatever it takes. Just because they don’t work better than placebo doesn’t mean they don’t work. Certainly safer than prescribing an actual drug. “For a thousand years the action of the placebo has made vast numbers of patients feel better.” So, why stop now?

Even just offering a made-up diagnosis and false reassurance seems to work. 200 patients for whom “no definite diagnosis” could be made were randomized into two groups. The honesty group was told, “I cannot be certain what is the matter with you,” and the dishonesty group was given some fake but “firm diagnosis,” and told confidently they’d get better “in a few days.” And, guess what, they did. They were 90% more likely to be cured. A deception flowchart has even been devised to help doctors decide, for example, if they should consider lying, versus a non-lying deception, to meet objectives.

Those on the pro-truth side of the fence argue that first of all, placebos aren’t necessarily always safe. The sugar in the sugar pills is typically lactose (milk sugar), for which most of humanity is intolerant after infancy. There was a famous cancer drug trial in which the chemotherapy caused a surprising reduction in nausea and vomiting compared to placebo; the chemo caused less. But, that may have been because it was compared to a placebo made out of lactose.

Pro-truth advocates accuse doctors of “disease-mongering.” “By defining vague symptoms as an entity requiring a treatment, healthy people are converted into patients… They need explanation and reassurance that promote autonomy, not to be given faith in a non-existent disease and crackpot medicine.” In fact, they say, “Hey, if all you care about is beneficial medical consequences, might not doctors also “have a duty to prescribe things like chanting, crystals, [and] séances?”

To which deception advocates reply, look, “Doctors have a duty to do the best they can to relieve a patient’s symptoms. If that means they prescribe a placebo, or even conduct a séance…, then there is a duty to do these things. If a doctor can really convince a patient that a chant will cure his headache, then it very likely will,” and she should chant like crazy. In fact, they say: “It is a type of deception that patients ought to be thankful for, just as we are thankful when we receive a mendacious compliment from a friend.” Of course you don’t look fat in that dress.

So, how many doctors lie to their patients? “About half of surveyed internal medicine doctors and rheumatologists in the United States reported prescribing placebo treatments on a regular basis.” Similar numbers have been found in Canada, Europe, Israel, and New Zealand—everywhere it’s been looked. “Prescribing placebo treatments seems to be common and is viewed as ethically permissible…”

I find it ironic that physicians often condemn alternative medicine quacks for giving useless remedies when they themselves do the same thing on a regular basis. As one physician commented, “The vow we take is the Hippocratic oath—not the Hypocritic[al] one.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image thanks to Pzaxe via dreamstime. Image has been modified.

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

A controversial paper was recently published arguing that it’s not only okay for doctors to lie to patients, but that we have “a duty to deceive.” Unlike what you see on television, “roughly half the time a patient” walks into a doctor’s office, “a firm diagnosis cannot be made.” Half the time, the doctor doesn’t know what’s going on. So, why not give the patient a sugar pill, a homeopathic remedy—which is often just that, an actual sugar pill—or a flower remedy; whatever it takes. Just because they don’t work better than placebo doesn’t mean they don’t work. Certainly safer than prescribing an actual drug. “For a thousand years the action of the placebo has made vast numbers of patients feel better.” So, why stop now?

Even just offering a made-up diagnosis and false reassurance seems to work. 200 patients for whom “no definite diagnosis” could be made were randomized into two groups. The honesty group was told, “I cannot be certain what is the matter with you,” and the dishonesty group was given some fake but “firm diagnosis,” and told confidently they’d get better “in a few days.” And, guess what, they did. They were 90% more likely to be cured. A deception flowchart has even been devised to help doctors decide, for example, if they should consider lying, versus a non-lying deception, to meet objectives.

Those on the pro-truth side of the fence argue that first of all, placebos aren’t necessarily always safe. The sugar in the sugar pills is typically lactose (milk sugar), for which most of humanity is intolerant after infancy. There was a famous cancer drug trial in which the chemotherapy caused a surprising reduction in nausea and vomiting compared to placebo; the chemo caused less. But, that may have been because it was compared to a placebo made out of lactose.

Pro-truth advocates accuse doctors of “disease-mongering.” “By defining vague symptoms as an entity requiring a treatment, healthy people are converted into patients… They need explanation and reassurance that promote autonomy, not to be given faith in a non-existent disease and crackpot medicine.” In fact, they say, “Hey, if all you care about is beneficial medical consequences, might not doctors also “have a duty to prescribe things like chanting, crystals, [and] séances?”

To which deception advocates reply, look, “Doctors have a duty to do the best they can to relieve a patient’s symptoms. If that means they prescribe a placebo, or even conduct a séance…, then there is a duty to do these things. If a doctor can really convince a patient that a chant will cure his headache, then it very likely will,” and she should chant like crazy. In fact, they say: “It is a type of deception that patients ought to be thankful for, just as we are thankful when we receive a mendacious compliment from a friend.” Of course you don’t look fat in that dress.

So, how many doctors lie to their patients? “About half of surveyed internal medicine doctors and rheumatologists in the United States reported prescribing placebo treatments on a regular basis.” Similar numbers have been found in Canada, Europe, Israel, and New Zealand—everywhere it’s been looked. “Prescribing placebo treatments seems to be common and is viewed as ethically permissible…”

I find it ironic that physicians often condemn alternative medicine quacks for giving useless remedies when they themselves do the same thing on a regular basis. As one physician commented, “The vow we take is the Hippocratic oath—not the Hypocritic[al] one.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image thanks to Pzaxe via dreamstime. Image has been modified.

Nota del Doctor

What does everyone think about this practice? Would you want to be lied to by your doctor if it would help make you better?

Is Homeopathy Just Placebo? It appears so, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work! Though I do offer a cautionary tale about the lactose concern in Infant Nearly Killed by Homeopathy.

Be sure to check out my associated blog post for more context: Half of Doctors Give Placebos.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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