Placebos and the power of the mind

It’s been a while since I posted anything. I’ve had a busy few months but now I’ve found the time to write again.

Today I want to look at placebos. Put simply, these are medications which have no active ingredient, or they can be medications with an active ingredient given for a condition which they are known not to have any effect on.

The medical press and the mainstream press in Australia have recently given placebos more attention. This happens from time to time because placebos are as old as healthcare itself. This time the trigger has been a study published in the Australian Journal of General Practice.

A survey of Australian GPs found that most GPs use placebos. This is the reason a medical journal article got the attention of more mainstream media channels. Antibiotics given for viral infections seems to be the most common placebo scenario.

From personal experience patients want antibiotics for their sore throat, toothache or cough because that’s what they have experienced as effective in the past or someone has told them that is the course of action to take. In past decades of more paternalistic or doctor-led healthcare doctors often gave patients antibiotics so that they felt they had been given treatment of some sort.

Both patients and doctors increasingly understand anti microbial resistance and how this is a growing problem. Consequently doctors are less likely to prescribe antibiotics and more members of the public are accepting this.

Even when patients know they are being given a placebo they often report benefit. This type of placebo is what is termed a open label placebo. This is where the power of the mind comes into it. A person knows they have been given a placebo but another part of their consciousness feels that they have taken treatment and for that reason they feel better. The feeling of having taken something outweighs the knowledge that the substance taken cannot possibly have made any difference.

This is such an important subject area that Harvard University has a Program in Placebo Studies to delve deeper in what placebos mean for medicine and treatment.

If this subconscious healing power of the mind can be harnessed in a meaningful way there could be potentially massive savings on medication bills around the world as patients take cheaper medication, but get the same level of improvement in their symptoms.