Placebo – Using your powers for good
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow discusses the ethics and the practicalities of harnessing the power of the placebo effect for good.
In February, an important paper was published in the British medical journal the Lancet, reviewing the discoveries about the placebo effect and cautiously probing its potential for use by doctors. In December, the Michael J. Fox Foundation announced plans for two projects to study the promise of placebo in treating Parkinson’s. Even the federal government has taken an interest, funding relevant research in recent years.
But any attempt to harness the placebo effect immediately runs into thorny ethical and practical dilemmas. To present a dummy pill as real medicine would be, by most standards, to lie. To prescribe one openly, however, would risk undermining the effect. And even if these issues were resolved, the whole idea still might sound a little shady–offering bogus pills or procedures could seem, from the patient’s perspective, hard to distinguish from skimping on care.
“In the last 10 years we’ve made tremendous strides in demonstrating the biological veracity of the placebo effect,” says Ted Kaptchuk, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the coauthors of the Lancet article. “The frontier is, how do we utilize what is clearly an important phenomenon in a way that’s consistent with patient-practitioner trust, and informed consent?”