In Western medicine, placebos have long been the bridesmaids, never the bride. That’s not surprising: they’re sham pills or simulated medical interventions, seen as handmaidens for use in clinical trials rather than the real thing. Their influence, known as the “placebo effect,” is understood to be a perceived (and not necessarily real or measurable) improvement in a medical condition. Now a spate of new studies trumpeting placebos’ efficacy and their prevalence in mainstream medical treatment is dramatically shifting that perception.
A McGill University survey triggered shock ripples with its revelation that 20 per cent of Canadian medical school doctors prescribed placebos to unknowing patients and that more than 35 per cent of psychiatrists prescribed medications in “subtherapeutic” doses, or below the minimal recommended therapeutic level.