Online Survey Reveals UK Doctors Giving Patients Placebo Treatments

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21st March 2013 16:32 - Health

A web-based survey conducted by Oxford University – spanning 783 responses and with 71% of these comprised of doctors who are registered with the General Medical Council – has made some startling discoveries about the prevalence of placebo treatments.

Despite the official position of the British Medical Association, which deems the use of placebo treatments as unethical, more than three-quarters of UK doctors prescribe a treatment to patients that they know probably won’t work at least once a week.

These placebos include joint injections, low-dose drugs, vitamins, nutritional supplements, unnecessary examinations, physical therapy, peppermint pills for a sore throat and antibiotics for infections where they would not be effective.

When the doctors were asked if they had ever used a true placebo such as a sugar pill, a drug not meant for the patient’s condition or a non-essential examination including blood tests and X-rays, 97% reported having done so at least once, while 12% had issued a fake pill.

The surveyed doctors said they prescribed the "placebo effect" to reassure patients or because patients pushed for a treatment.

Approximately 77% of doctors said they used some sort of placebo treatment every week, while over 80% felt the use of placebos in some circumstances was ethical.

Oxford researchers conducting the study have concluded that placebos are a common practice among doctors and therefore official guidance on the subject should be changed to include conditions where the use of placebos are beneficial. 

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