By Robert Bazell, NBC News Chief science correspondent
One of the biggest pieces of proof of the "mind-body" connection is the existence of the "placebo effect." Inevitably, in clinical trials, some people get the placebo, or dummy treatment and perceive they have gotten some benefit. The big question is whether the drug or other treatment brings more benefit than the placebo. Brain scans have even shown that people who are told they are getting a treatment will feel less pain –even if they are not actually getting treatment.
Tonight we report on a study that looked at how doctors use this well-known power of persuasion when they have run out of other options. A survey of U.S. physicians by a group of bioethicists at the National Institutes of Health found that 50 percent of doctors used a placebo regularly. About 61 percent thought it was ethical to do so and only 5 percent tell their patients what they are doing.
We usually think of a placebo as a sugar pill or a pill with some other inert ingredient. In clinical trials, it often is. But in the case of this survey, doctors would give a vitamin, an over-the-counter painkiller, or even an antibiotic knowing full well that it was of no use for the particular condition at hand.
What they hope is that the patient's mind will perceive some release. A big question, according to the researchers, is whether we have gotten to the place in American medicine where a patient would be content to leave a doctor's office without a pill or other treatment if the doctor simply offered an assurance they would get better.
The Food and Drug Administration has posted an article about the placebo effect. In 2001, some researchers analyzed a long series of studies that used placeboes and concluded the effect was not powerful enough to be used as a treatment. Apparently, many U.S. doctors feel otherwise.