Placebo Effect

There was a Bad Science post on March 1st in response to the antidepressant effectivity study. Ben Goldacre, the author, first combated the hype:

In fact the new study added nothing (and it was ridiculously badly reported, see further down this page): we already knew that antidepressants perform only marginally better than placebo, and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines have actively advised against using them in milder depression since 2004.

The more interesting facts, he explained, were those related to the placebo effect itself. It’s rather potent. The placebo response in depression is variable, substantial, and growing (Walsh 2002). Respectable minds earnestly suggest that we add them to our analgesic repertoire. Ben concludes:

Sugar pills are the future, if only there was a way to give them with integrity, and a straight face.

Maybe he has a point. Maybe we should consider prescribing sugar pills. If they work, they work, right?

Perhaps. But despite their functionality I think the medical profession would loose a piece of the public trust it if they decided to overtly deceive their patients (a little trust goes a long way in the age of malpractice). I also suspect that physicians would be hard pressed to make a case for the clinical potency of a sugar pill despite a heralding of credible scientific studies. The cost outweighs the benefit; besides, I think there are equally potent and more ingenuous options. Psychological therapy comes to mind. Pills aren’t the best answer to every health problem.

What do you think? Post a comment!

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