Half of U.S. doctors regularly prescribe placebos

Up to half of all doctors in the U.S. regularly prescribe placebos to their patients, according to a new study in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal). Since there is no way for a doctor to tell the pharmacist to give his patient a sugar pill, these doctors use real medicines, just not ones that have any effect on the problem that the patient presents with during the visit.

For example, they might give a large dose of Aleve to a patient complaining of fibromyalgia. Many of them use headache pills or vitamins as placebos, but some use antibiotics and sedatives. Even though they are not technically inert like a sugar pill would be, doctors are not prescribing them for the effect on the patient's body; they are prescribing them for the effect on the patient's mind.

Studies have shown that placebos can sometimes be helpful, but does this make it right for doctors to prescribe them, especially without the knowledge of the patient? Medical ethicists, meanwhile, argue that this could severely undermine the trust relationship between a patient and his or her doctor.

To learn more about the study and the implications:
- Read this New York Times piece