Doctors in Australia are giving their patients a placebo treatment, mainly to calm their thoughts, according to a new study published Monday. But it's not just a Australian practice – other research has shown that this is also true for doctors around the world.
The new study, published in the Australian Journal of General Practice surveyed more than 130 family physicians (in many parts of the world they are known as general practitioners ). The doctors were asked if they had ever prescribed an inert placebo ̵
The survey found that 39 percent of physicians in their careers had at least once prescribed an inert placebo, most often things like saline nasal sprays and skin creams. Just over three-quarters of physicians said they had used an active placebo once in their careers. Forty percent said they would routinely do this at least once a month. Of these active placebo antibiotics (42 percent), vitamin and mineral supplements (17 percent), and therapies that were considered alternative medicine, such as homeopathy (10 percent), were the most commonly prescribed.
Given the frequency with which doctors prescribe placebo elsewhere.
"We already know that doctors and GPs use placebos regularly abroad," study author Ben Colagiur, associate professor of psychology at the University of Sydney, said in a statemen not by the University released.
A 2008 study by internists (adults-only physicians) and rheumatologists in the US found that about half of them regularly prescribed placebos. Another 2012 study of German physicians found that 88 percent had used placebos at least once in their patients, mostly active placebos. And a 2013 study in the UK revealed that 97 percent of physicians had prescribed active placebos there at least once in their career . Overall, the prescription rates of placebo are between 17 and 80 percent of physicians, depending on the location and type of placebo sought.
As the authors of this most recent study point out, there is a reasonable place in medicine for placebos. Often, health complaints such as colds and stomach pain are self-limiting and do not disappear faster, regardless of which treatment you use. With placebos, we can feel better during this time of suffering. That's why scientists need to test every new treatment against a comparable placebo to make sure it has an added effect.
Part of the problem, of course, is that people generally do not take a placebo, which they believe is one – It is expected that reinforces the placebo effect. And lying to your patients is not exactly advocated in the Hippocratic Oath. In the current study, about 80 percent of physicians agreed that a placebo should only be prescribed if the patient is informed in advance that it is unlikely to do anything specific to treat their problem. It would seem that would render the placebo unusable, but there is growing evidence that even people who know that they occupy placebo feel better in the end those who do not take anything, at least for certain health conditions.
Another pattern of placebo use is the widespread over-prescribing of antibiotics against viral infections. Any amount of antibiotics increases the risk of forming bacterial strains that are resistant not only to this antibiotic but also to other related strains. Therefore, we need to manage our supplies carefully. Hospitals and organizations have been trying in recent years to educate doctors and patients about the overuse of antibiotics, with some success in reducing the number of unnecessary prescriptions.
In the US, organizations such as the American Medical Association have their own guidelines when physicians can prescribe a placebo, whereby states that doctors are informed in advance of their use and "avoid administering a placebo just to calm a difficult patient". However, there are no such guidelines in Australia, according to the authors. And they add that there is still a lot of work to be done to find out how the placebo effect can be optimally used in a harmless and honest manner.