Increased concern about overmedicating patients is pushing more and more physicians to investigate new approaches to relieving suffering. It’s even prompting some doctors to consider what was once the unthinkable – offering patients placebos.
Associate professor of medicine at Harvard University, Ted Kaptchuk has been looking into the effects of placebo medicine – his original interest being to show the effectiveness of pharmaceutical drugs – as opposed to a placebo control group. He said, “We were struggling to increase drug effects while no one was trying to increase the placebo effect.”
And, that’s an important insight if one is focused on finding solutions – outcomes – rather than specific presumptive methodologies.
According to Cara Feinberg in the December 2012 issue of Harvard Magazine, “Researchers have found that placebo treatments – interventions with no active drug ingredients – can stimulate real physiological responses, from changes in heart rate and blood pressure to chemical activity in the brain, in cases involving pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue.”
Feinberg’s interview with Kaptchuk also presented his doubts about placebos. Many medical professionals are leery of placebo research, since most studies do not have a “no-treatment” group.
But surprising to Kaptchuk and others, have been the studies where individuals have been told they are taking placebos. The science and medicine journal PLOS ONE published a study in 2010. The study compared two groups of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) sufferers. One group received no treatment and the other received “fake” pills – delivered in bottles actually labeled “placebo pills”.
Kaptchuk reported, “The study’s results shocked the investigators themselves: even patients who knew they were taking placebos described real improvement, reporting twice as much symptom relief as the no-treatment group. That’s a difference so significant, it’s comparable to the improvement seen in trials for the best real IBS drugs.”
Kaptuchuk realizes the difficulties in acceptance of placebo research and he concludes, “We have to transform the art of medicine into the science of care.”
Such a transformation would alter the treatment of disease from the sole domain of drug-based therapy to the consideration of approaches that recognize the importance of the physical, mental and spiritual nature of health. Ultimately, that may be the lesson behind the study and use of placebos. As we recognize the importance of thought in making the body well, it will increasingly make sense to include pastoral, meditative and prayer-based therapies in the cure of disease.