Placebos in the Doctor's Office

Article excerpt

Today, when 26-year-old Jennifer K. from Rockville,, Maryland, has a panic attack, she simply distracts herself with a book or crossword puzzle. But at their height, several years ago, the attacks scared her so much that she finally went to the emergency room.

"I thought I was going to die of a heart attack," says Kennedy.

She did not believe her physician when he told her to "just relax" and she would feel all right; and he ended up prescribing pills. He did not tell her until two weeks later, after her panic attacks had subsided, that the pills were simply placebos with no active medical ingredient.

Those who oppose the use of placebo pills in medical practice say that such deceit can undermine the essential trust between patient and physician. Gastroenterologist Michael Kirsch, M.D., has called physicians who prescribe placebos outside medical research "con artists."

Dr. Kirsch asked in a 1998 editorial in Priorities, the magazine of the nonprofit American Council on Science and Health, "If using placebos therapeutically is ethical and reasonable, shouldn't we encourage judges to render extra-legal activist rulings, wine growers to bottle 'placebo' vintages, curators to display masterpiece look-alikes misleadingly, and journalists and newscasters to sanitize news? In such a world, all of us would be groping for truth in a hall of mirrors."

However, placebo researcher Michael Jospe disagrees with what he calls this "strict, grumpy approach that concludes that any doctor who uses placebos is acting unethically. …