Placebo Treatments Commonly Utilized

Prescribing placebo treatments viewed as both common and ethical
By Pat F. Bass, M.D.
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Oct. 24 (HealthDay News) -- Physicians utilizing placebo treatments may not be fully transparent about their use, according to research published Oct. 23 in BMJ Online First.

Jon C. Tilburt, of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and colleagues performed a cross-sectional survey of 1,200 practicing internists and rheumatologists to determine attitudes and behaviors regarding placebo treatments. The main outcome measures were self-reported behaviors and attitudes concerning the use of placebo treatments.

Overall, the survey response rate was 57 percent, and about half of the surveyed internists and rheumatologists reported prescribing placebo treatments on a regular basis, the researchers report. Most physicians believed prescribing placebo to be ethically permissible, the findings indicate. Vitamins and over-the-counter analgesics were the two most commonly prescribed placebo treatments, although some patients were prescribed antibiotics and sedatives as a placebo treatment, the authors note. Additionally, placebo treatments are most commonly described to patients as "potentially beneficial" or "not typically used" for a condition, but only rarely are they described as placebos.

"Half of the U.S. internal medicine and rheumatology physicians studied reported often recommending placebo treatments, most commonly vitamins, over-the-counter analgesics and antibiotics," the authors write. "Whether, or under what circumstances, recommending or prescribing placebo treatments is appropriate remains a topic for ethical and policy debates."

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