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Study: Unsuspecting patients prescribed placebos

October 27, 2008 by  

Is your doctor giving a real drug or a placebo?The majority of American doctors responding to a new survey said they see no ethical problem with the practice of prescribing placebos to patients without their knowledge.

In this study, published in the British Medical Journal, a placebo is defined as a treatment not specifically aimed at helping a particular condition.

Around half of the internists and rheumatologists surveyed said that they have prescribed placebos several times a month. Only 5 percent of respondents said they specifically told their patients it was a placebo.

Painkillers, vitamins, antibiotics, sedatives, saline injections and sugar pills were the most common placebos prescribed – in that order.

"It’s a disturbing finding. There is an element of deception here which is contrary to the principle of informed consent," co-author Franklin G. Miller of the U.S. National Institutes of Health told the Associated Press.

The authors suggest that doctors may reason that prescribing a placebo – which may potentially provide benefits – is preferable to not doing anything. These drugs also help raise a patient’s expectations for improvement, also known as "the placebo effect."

Placebos are often used in medical trials so that researchers can compare their effects with those of active medications.
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