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Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Placebo Effect

A psychiatrist from McGill wants to make placebos part of the regular regiment of medical treatments. He claims that placebos are powerful things. At times they can even be more effective than the costly medications that we produce. Study after study exists out there to back him up. The placebo effect is an established and real thing. He may very well have a point. If you could give a placebo instead of, let’s say, an antibacterial, we might have been able to avoid having antibiotic-resistant super-germs floating around hospitals. Placebos would also save the ill millions of dollars, as it is a lot cheaper to produce Tic-Tacs than Lipitor. The guy makes sense.
Where I got confused was when I thought about the big picture. Aren’t placebos only effective because we believe in them? If you give a patient an M&M, inform that patient of the “medication’s” true nature, and say “But don’t worry, it’ll cure cancer,” the thing won’t work. Of course it won’t work: it’s an M&M. So to incorporate placebos into our medical bag of tricks, you also have to incorporate deceit and lies. Your doctor has to lie to you in order to make sure the pills he’s giving you will work. Not only that, but you have to believe the lies.
Aren’t those lies only believable because we, as patients, know that there is a whole plethora of dope and pills out there that can cure what ails us? In order for a placebo to operate, it needs a camouflage of billions of dollars of real drugs. And should doctors begin regularly prescribing placebos, how long until that becomes public knowledge? We live in a global village with whistle-blowers and the Internet: I think the news that doctors are engaged in a conspiracy would take about six minutes to break.
So now we have created a situation where patients doubt every pill they’re given. Is it a Smartie? Or is it Amoxicilin? So many people already distrust actual doctors that homeopaths (professional purveyors of placebos) have a thriving business. Is it really a good idea to add to that distrust by actually being untrustworthy?
It also occurs to me that there may well be an anti-placebo effect as well. If the power of the human mind and belief is so strong that it can cure diseases based on the strength of a symbolic, ingested Mike&Ike, doesn’t it also stand to reason that the body can resist the legitimate effects of a real drug if you think it’s bogus?
Ultimately, I’d rather take my chances with science. Reese’s Pieces belong in movie night, not the medicine cabinet.

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