Placebos Work

Half of our physicians prescribe placebos.  However, these rarely take the form of inactive “sugar pills” similar to those used in drug trials. Rather, doctors reported using over-the-counter pain relievers (41%), vitamins (38%), antibiotics (13%) and sedatives (13%).

Placebos apparently work. They’re almost as good as anti-depressants. They also are effective against hypertension and pain. This is from Ezra Klein:

CBO director Peter Orszag….slides suggest the need….to take the immense power of the placebo effect more seriously — not as statistical noise, or a way to disprove the efficacy of other treatments, but as a method of treatment in itself….

The implication of course is that it’s far cheaper to give someone a chest incision than an angina, and far cheaper to give them a sugar pill than an anti-depressant. There are ethical issues, of course.

Interestingly, a JAMA study [gated] finds that expensive placebos work better than cheaper ones.

Comments (4)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Larry C. says:

    A brilliant solution to the problem of the rising cost of health care: Give everyone placebos!

  2. Joe S. says:


    What do you think Obama has in mind when he say he is going to save every family $2,500 by making efficiency improvements?

  3. Devon Herrick, PhD National Center for Policy Analysis says:

    I’ve seen articles that claim if a senior is on a dozen drugs, the odds are that half of the drugs being prescribed are to alleviate the side effects of the other half.

    I the case where a senior is on 10 to 12 drugs, I wonder how many of those were prescribed as placebos?

    Studies have shown that the more drugs a patient is taking, the greater the risk that some are unnecessary, inappropriate or contraindicated.

  4. John Goodman says:

    There is a very good and very balanced discussion of this issue in the Wall Street Journal today.(LINK)