CBC News

A significant number of doctors in the United States prescribe placebos to their patients, a new study suggests.

A study of 200 doctors in the Chicago area found that nearly half had, at some point, written prescriptions for interventions they did not expect would have a physical effect.

The findings are reported in the January issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Rachel Sherman, a medical student at the University of Chicago, sent questionnaires to 466 internists at three Chicago-area academic medical centres. About half of them responded.

And 45 per cent of those who filled out the forms said they had prescribed a placebo at some time. Of those:

  • 34 per cent said they presented a placebo as "a substance that may help and will not hurt."
  • 19 per cent told their patients "it is medication."
  • Nine per cent said "it is medicine with no specific effect."

Only four per cent of doctors admitted to their patients that they had prescribed a placebo.

About 12 per cent of the doctors surveyed said they felt the prescription of placebos should be prohibited.

Placebo means "to please somebody" in Latin, Dr. Peter Lin, a Toronto-based general practitioner told CBC's Metro Morning on Monday.

"If I give you a pill and I say that you're going to get better, people get better," he said.

Lin says that previous studies involving placebos have shown that when patients were given what they thought were painkillers — but instead were given placebos — their brains produced endorphins, natural painkillers, which essentially produced the same physical effects as the drugs.

"It's not an imagined improvement," says Lin. "It's an actual improvement. There is a huge mind-body connection that we need to explore."

Lin said the only caveat is that doctors need to prescribe placebos in an ethical manner. He says physicians who are just trying to get rid of patients who repeatedly ask them for some form of medication by prescribing placebos are doing them a disservice.

However, he says, if the doctor has checked out a patient and found them healthy but still seeking a treatment they don't require, placebos can meet that need.

"If we can get patients to feel better, that's good," Lin says.