Most GPs have 'prescribed a placebo to at least one patient'
Survey finds 97% of family doctors deliberately prescribed a useless or unnecessary treatment
ALMOST all family doctors questioned in a recent survey admitted to prescribing a placebo treatment to a patient at least once in their career. Researchers have said that sugar pills and other placebos should be accepted by NHS regulators as having a useful place in medicine.
Jeremy Howick of the University of Oxford led the research, an online survey of 783 GPs chosen at random, and is now urging doctors to "take their heads out of the sand" and formalise placebos as part of their armoury of treatments.
The survey - the first to question British GPs on the subject - found that 97 per cent of respondents admitted prescribing 'impure placebos'. These are not the classic sugar pills but any form of treatment prescribed in the knowledge that it will have no clinical benefit for the patient - instead, it is prescribed for psychological reasons.
Impure placebos cited in the survey included pointless scans to calm patients down, unnecessary blood tests, vitamin pills or unwarranted antibiotics, says The Times.
Around 12 per cent of doctors in the survey said they had given patients completely inactive substances such as sugar pills. One commenter on the online version of the Times story who identified himself as Dr Calum MacInnes questioned how sugar pills could be prescribed within the existing NHS framework.
Howick believes that placebos are a valuable tool for practitioners that should be formally investigated. He said: "We've spent the last 40 years investigating how non-placebos should be used to be safe and effective and the time has come to investigate placebos rationally to find out when they can help and when they might be harmful.
"Take depression and back pain: for many patients non-placebo treatments aren't serving them well and placebos might be of benefit and it's time doctors took their heads out of the sand."
Of course, as another commenter to the Times article observes, placebos have been around for a long time: homeopathy, with its treatments of substances diluted to such an extent that they can have no possible effect on a patient, relies on "imitation placebos". ·