freelance journalist, print journalist, online journalist, copywriter, content editor, freelance editor, health and lifestyle, blogger Placebo power recognised… in Germany | Christine Morgan - Journalist
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Placebo – now there’s something interesting, the concept that merely believing you’re taking a medicine that will cure you will make you better, even when the medicine you’re taking has no active ingredients (ie a dummy pill). And it divides the medical world like no other subject, with some medics believing placebo is a powerful tool that could be effectively harnessed, while others dismiss it as simple quackery, an unscientific con trick.

The German Medical Association, however, says placebos could – and should – be used in certain cases, following a major study that suggests dummy pills sometimes work better than actual medicines. The news is causing a bit of a stink in international medical circles, since the GMA advises doctors that they don’t have to use the word placebo when prescribing dummy pills for their patients – they only have to say that they’re giving them something ‘unusual’.

British and US health experts think this is madness, of course. And that’s despite the German advice suggesting that placebos should only be used when other effective therapies don’t exist – such as in cases of mild anxiety, depression, pain and chronic inflammatory conditions, where other treatments have been tried but have failed. The German docs say placebos may be useful in cases where pain is subjective, for instance. They do not work for broken bones, for instance, or for cancer, the experts say.

Fair enough, that sounds good to me. But US experts are up in arms about it, saying it’s absolutely not acceptable to lie to patients about what treatment they’re receiving. Even the UK’s BMA has waded in, with ethics committee chairman Tony Calland claiming that the use of placebos is unscientific and sends medicine back into the 19th century.

Yet it’s common knowledge – in medical circles at least – that doctors in this country (and, according to studies, in Denmark and the US) often prescribe placebos without their patients’ knowledge.

Unscientific may be the way Mr Calland describes placebo power, but numerous drug tests show that dummy pills are as effective – sometimes even more so – than the medicines being trialled. And it’s only unscientific because we simply don’t have the knowledge or the insight to understand why placebo works in such cases.

After all, there’s not much money to be made from placebo, so it’s no wonder the majority of medical research focuses on drug treatments, where tidy profits can – and are – made. How many researchers are out there trying to really understand how placebo works? Not many, I dare say.

Cynical, yes – I admit it. Makes you think though, doesn’t it? Maybe the Germans are so advanced when it comes to mind-body medicine, they know something the rest of us don’t? Or perhaps they’re just more willing to be open-minded.