Posted on 22/03/2013

Are UK Doctors Prescribing Placebos?

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Are UK Doctors Prescribing Placebos?

New survey highlights use of placebos by GPs

According to a recent BBC News report, “most family doctors have given a placebo to at least one of their patients.”

The headlines are based on a large survey of UK GP’s with placebos being put into one of two categories as follows:-

- Pure placebos, which are treatments containing no active ingredients, for example, sugar pills.
- Impure placebos, which contain active ingredients but are not recommended for the condition treated, i.e. antibiotics for flu.

Carried out by researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Southampton, the study was partly funded by the University of Oxford and the Southampton Complementary Medical Research Trust and was published in the peer-reviewed journal, PLOS ONE.

The survey highlighted that 97% of doctors had given patients an impure placebo during their careers with 10% admitting to giving pure placebos. It also found that over 1% of GP’s used pure placebos at least once a week, and that 77% used impure placebos on a weekly basis.

Many of the doctors surveyed said that placebos were ethical under certain circumstances and can result in an improvement in the patient’s condition, known as the placebo effect. There is however, growing debate about whether the use of placebos in routine medical practice is ethical or not.

Concern over the damage that prescribing a placebo could cause to the relationship between the GP and patient is an area for concern, however researchers are interested in the use of placebos to improve conditions that may normally rely on medication.

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