MD, PhD, MAE, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Prof. Fabricio Benedetti is one of the world’s leading experts in the study of placebo effects. I have mentioned his excellent work before, for instance, here where he cautioned that quackery has today one more weapon on its side, which is paradoxically represented by the hard science–supported placebo mechanisms. Now he has expressed his concerns even more clearly in an article entitled “Alternative and natural medicine quackery is on the rise. Here’s why the placebo effect is part of the problem”. Here are a few excerpts from this excellent paper:

For several decades now, many scientists, including me, have been working hard to reveal the full power and scope of the placebo effect — the amazing ability of a simple sugar pill or other non-pharmaceutical “fake intervention” to improve someone’s quality of life. This research has been crucial to giving scientific credibility to a powerful psychological effect. But the advances of science have also backfired, spawning an alternative industry that preys on the vulnerable…

All this means that some alternative medicines can indeed have positive outcomes for patients, though not necessarily through the mechanisms that the therapy’s inventors supposed, but rather through a placebo effect. This holds true for treatments ranging from strange talismans to acupuncture — studies have shown that pain relief is about the same for patients receiving true acupuncture with needles, for example, as for those receiving sham acupuncture with trick needles.

The scientific advances in understanding placebo are fascinating. But one unfortunate outcome of all this work is that profit-seeking companies and individuals now have a new weapon: It is no longer necessary to demonstrate the effectiveness of their proposed therapies; it is enough to assert that these work because of the placebo effect. I receive myriad eccentric proposals for new therapies, ranging from talismans and concoctions to mascots and weird rituals. Their inventors claim that these are capable of inducing substantial health benefits and often seek my endorsement. These proposals have stepped up sharply in recent years. Sadly, the science of the placebo effect is fueling this new breed of pseudoscience…

So, if a salesperson says: “This concoction (or ritual or talisman) will reduce your pain,” it is not necessarily a lie, as the placebo effect may indeed stimulate pain-relieving circuits in the brain. But anyone could truthfully use these words, within limits.

These marketers often overstate the size of the possible response, claim to provide a “cure” rather than pain relief or incorrectly suggest that only their own expensive products will have this effect. Even worse, they may present the products as an alternative to more effective traditional medications for serious conditions such as cancer. In other words, they prey on the vulnerable by making undeliverable promises, purportedly backed by the science of placebo.

Even if taking a placebo can reduce symptoms such as pain, this isn’t always the best course of action. An apparently trivial pain may, for example, be the first sign of something far more serious. Treating the pain alone may prevent diagnosis by a physician or delay important medical treatments…

…Education, communication and honesty are the best friends of medical practice. Patients and health care professionals deserve to know what placebos can and cannot do.

The research and medical communities must be more transparent about the efficacy of many conventional pharmacological and nonpharmacological treatments, by acknowledging that some of them are useful whereas some others are not. Many over-the-counter products have doubtful efficacy, for example. Honesty will boost patients’ trust and confidence in medicine, which are the best antidotes to quackery.

 

BRAVO PROF BENEDETTI!

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