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The Power of the Placebo — Is Healing All in Our Mind?

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A recent survey of doctors from the U.S. finds that nearly two out of three believe it is permissible to use placebos, and one out of two U.S. doctors prescribe placebos to their patients. Surveys of physicians in Israel, Denmark, and Great Britain reveal similar findings. This research, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), has prompted well-known author Sally Satel, M.D., to comment on a recent Op/Ed page of the Wall Street Journal that the extent of the use of placebos is “disquieting, even unethical.”
However, when recent studies revealed that prescription anti-depressants worked only as well as placebos, the Wall Street Journal reported on the efforts of pharmaceutical companies to “harness placebos” as part of their current research and development.
Studies have indicated that placebos are effective up to 70% of the time. A review of many prescription drugs reveal efficacy rates much lower than that of the placebo. The practice of medicine in the U.S. is often prescription- and procedure-driven. Placebos provide an opportunity to integrate the mind-body connection into the practice of medicine, and to harness its health benefits.
“Alternative” systems of healthcare like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda have thousands of years of time-tested use compared to the relatively young allopathic medicine (less than 100 years old). These systems of healthcare (not disease care) focus on health as a balance of physical, emotional, and spiritual health. As Dr. Satel points out, “Physicians who use placebos carefully recognize that the practical value of faith must neither be underestimated nor dismissed….If patients suffer less…it is worth finding out.”
Integrative medicine has been dismissed time and again as “the placebo response.” Chelation? Oh, it’s just a placebo. Homeopathy? Again, it’s just a placebo. Yet patients now flock to the doors of integrative physicians who brave the ire of their state medical boards to offer health programs based upon natural approaches and physical, emotional, and spiritual balance. They know that the mind-body connection is vital to a patient’s health. Treating patients by merely “following the numbers” of cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and PSA readings, appears to be significantly less effective and fails the test of scientific scrutiny more often than does a more holistic, integrative approach.
The recent discussion in the November 2008 issue of Consumer Reports on Health by a professor at the Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University mentioned the use of “palliative chemotherapy.” This means chemotherapy not to cure but to appear to cure. That is disconcerting at best, given the extreme potential toxicity of chemotherapy.
Before even thinking about using poisons such as chemotherapy as a placebo, we should read the Institute of Noetic Sciences’s Spontaneous Remission, an Annotated Bibliography. This is a humbling tribute to what we have yet to learn. No wonder millions of Americans seek the advice and counsel of integrative physicians who are open to learning new science and new ways to harness the body’s ability to heal itself.

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