Most people have heard the term “placebo.” It’s a pill or other treatment that has no active ingredient. Placebos are sometimes used in clinical trials. One group is given a real medication, while the other (the control group) is given a placebo. Researchers determine how effective the real medication is. The subjects aren’t told which they’re receiving.
In years past, doctors have been known to give patients placebos when they believed that there wasn’t actually anything wrong with them and their symptoms would disappear if they believed they were being treated. However, surveys indicate that some doctors still prescribe placebos to patients who insist on getting medication when they don’t need it. In one survey, a third of doctors said they had no problem with prescribing placebos in these cases.
There are actually two different types of placebos. Inactive (pure) placebos are the ones most people are familiar with. They have no medicinal value — like a sugar pill, for example. The other is an active (impure) placebo. It is a treatment that a patient doesn’t need for their condition. An example would be an antibiotic given to a patient who has a viral infection. (These infections don’t respond to antibiotics.)
Interestingly, studies have found that in some cases, placebos actually do alleviate patients’ symptoms. Their mind tells their body that the “medication” will make them feel better, so it does. Some doctors report that even when they tell a patient they’re getting a placebo, their pain or other symptoms are alleviated. One professor postulates that just by interacting with a doctor who cares enough to give them something to take, they feel better.
Of course, there can be serious ethical and legal implications when a doctor gives a patient a placebo — particularly if they tell them or lead them to believe it’s real medication. The patient might indeed be ill, while the doctor is convinced that the patient’s symptoms are all in their head.
Maybe a patient does feel better — or convinces themselves that they do — while their illness or injury is worsening. Maybe they give up seeking help because they think nothing’s working and their condition worsens. If one of these scenarios has happened to you or a loved one, find out what your legal options are for recovery.