Academic Physicians Use Placebos in Clinical Practice and Believe in the Mind–Body Connection

Abstract

Background

The placebo and the placebo effect are often investigated in the context of clinical trials. Little data exist on the use of placebos in the course of routine health care.

Objective

The aim of this study is to describe a group of academic physicians’ use of placebos and their knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about placebos and the placebo effect.

Design

A 16-question anonymous web-based survey of physicians from Internal Medicine departments of 3 Chicago-area medical schools was used.

Results

There were 231/466 (50%) physicians who responded; of these, 45% reported they had used a placebo in clinical practice. The most common reasons for placebo use were to calm the patient and as supplemental treatment. Physicians did not widely agree on the definition of a placebo and had a variety of explanations for its mechanism of action. Ninety-six percent of the respondents believed that placebos can have therapeutic effects, and up to 40% of the physicians reported that placebos could benefit patients physiologically for certain health problems. Only 12% of the respondents said that placebo use in routine medical care should be categorically prohibited. Regarding “placebo-like” treatment, 48% of respondents reported giving at least 1 type of treatment in a situation where there was no evidence of clinical efficacy.

Conclusion

Nearly half of the respondents use placebos in clinical practice and most believe in the mind–body connection. The results of this study, based on retrospective self-reported behavior, are subject to recall bias and may not be representative of American physicians.

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Acknowledgment

Many thanks to Sinan Kermen, Sandy Cook, Sandy Smith, and Jamie Cohen-Cole for their support.

Conflict of Interest

None disclosed.

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Correspondence to Rachel Sherman.

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Sherman, R., Hickner, J. Academic Physicians Use Placebos in Clinical Practice and Believe in the Mind–Body Connection. J GEN INTERN MED 23, 7–10 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-007-0332-z

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KEY WORDS

  • placebo use
  • placebo effect
  • clinical practice
  • mind–body connection