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.