The subject of placebo is a complex but fascinating one, particularly for those interested in alternative medicine. Most sceptics believe that alternative therapies rely heavily, if not entirely, on the placebo effect. Some alternative practitioners, when unable to produce convincing evidence that their treatment is effective, seem to have now settled to admitting that their therapy works (mostly or entirely) via a placebo effect. They the hasten to add that this is perfectly fine, because it is just an explanation as to how it works – a mechanism of action, in other words. Causing benefit via a placebo effect still means, they insist, that their therapy is effective.
In a previous post, I have tried to demonstrate that this belief is erroneous and where the notion comes from. It originates, I believe, from a mistaken definition of ‘effectiveness’: for many alternative practitioners ‘effectiveness’ encompasses the specific plus the non-specific (e. g. placebo) effects of their therapy. In real medicine, ‘effectiveness’ is the degree to which a treatment works under real life conditions.
The ‘alternative’ definition is, of course, incorrect but alternative practitioners stubbornly refuse to acknowledge this fact. Here are just two reasons why it cannot be right:
- If it were correct, it would be hardly conceivable to think of a treatment that is NOT effective. Applied with empathy and compassion, virtually all treatments – however devoid of specific effects – will produce a placebo effect. Thus they will all be effective, and the term would be superfluous because ‘treatment’ would automatically mean ‘effective’. An ineffective treatment would, in other words, be a contradiction in terms.
- If it were correct, any pharmaceutical or devices company could legally market ineffective drugs or gadgets and rightly claim (or even prove) that they are effective. Any such therapy could very easily be shown to generate a placebo-effect under the right circumstances; and as long as this is the case, it would be certifiably effective.
I do sympathise with alt med enthusiasts who find this hard or even impossible to accept. They see almost every day how their placebo-therapy benefits their patients. (It seems worth remembering that not just the placebo phenomenon but several other factors are involved in such outcomes – take, for instance, the natural history of the disease and the regression towards the mean.) And they might think that my arguments are nothing but a devious attempt do away with the beneficial power of the placebo.
The truth, however, is that nobody wants to do anything of the sort; we all want to help patients as much as possible, and that does, of course, include the use of the placebo effect. In clinical practice, we usually want to maximise the placebo effect where possible. But for this goal, we do not require placebo therapies. If we administer a specifically effective therapy with compassion, we undoubtedly also generate a placebo response. In addition, our patients would benefit from the specific effects of the prescribed therapy. Both elements are essential for an optimal therapeutic response, and I don’t know any conventional healthcare professionals who do not aim at this optimal outcome.
Giving just placebos will not normally generate an optimal outcome, and therefore it cannot truly be in the interest of the patient. It is also ethically problematic because it usually entails a degree of deception of the patient. Moreover, placebo effects are unreliable and usually of short duration. Foremost, they do not normally cure a disease; they may alleviate symptoms but they almost never tackle their causes. These characteristics hardly make placebos an acceptable choice for routine clinical practice.
The bottom line is clear and simple: a drug that is not better than placebo can only be classified as being ineffective. The same applies to all non-drug therapies. Double standards are not acceptable in healthcare. And the demonstration of a placebo effect does not turn an ineffective therapy into an effective one.
I know that many alternative practitioners do not agree with this line of thought – so, let’s hear their counter-arguments.