What medicine are you really getting?

October 30, 2008

When you visit the doctor you have an entirely reasonable assumption that they will treat the condition that you are consulting them for. This may involve giving you medication, and again you a right to assume that what you are given will be effective. However, disturbing new evidence from the USA has found that many doctors routinely prescribe placebo treatment instead of ‘real’ drugs.

Now, as my readers know, I am not a fan of wholesale medication but I do think if you are being given a placebo you should be told about it. In my childhood, it was actually not that uncommon either as then most doctors also had their own dispensaries and had a variety of standard bottles of jollop for various ills. My mother was a cleaner for our own doctor and she soon realised that the making up of the various remedies for stomach ache, sore throat, coughs and colds were basically all the same but each was a different colour and had more or less sugar in them. I can see the point in them, often such minor illnesses cure themselves and being given treatment increases confidence and that you will soon be well.

However, in the USA, 58% of doctors surveyed said it was ethical and acceptable to prescribe vitamins, sugar pills, painkillers, saline injections, or even antibiotics instead of the medical treatment the patient might expect. They also admitted that they don’t inform the patients of what they are giving them and regularly give placebos, but without ever mentioning the word. Over 1200 doctors were surveyed and they most routinely prescribed standard painkillers that the patient could buy in a pharmacy, or vitamin pills in a different bottle. A staggering 46% of doctors said that at least two to three times a month they recommended a treatment (placebo) primarily to promote patient expectations. They apparently usually tell the patient that they were being given a “potentially beneficial medicine or treatment not typically used for their condition.”

Well, yes. If you go to your doctor for a condition that manifests with lethargy and tiredness and you are given a vitamin, I can see how it might help, but wouldn’t it be simpler to at least have a discussion about diet and lifestyle? I know placebos are helpful and have a place, but the fact it is so common and widespread concerns me because are the doctors saying these people don’t need medical treatment but they are getting the consultation fee and payment for their ‘treatment’ so that makes it all right?

A significant proportion of the doctors surveyed were rheumatologists and prescribing placebos to people who are often in a great deal of pain seems to me to be admitting that you don’t have an adequate treatment – so why not say so and look outside the box to the complementary medicine field which often has greater success with particular ailments than the medical profession do?

The moral of this story? Always ask what you are being prescribed and what it is going to do for you. Doctors may prescribe placebos without informing you, but they are not going to do so if you ask for chapter and verse on what you are getting.


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