Could Your Doctor Be Prescribing Placebos?

In a 2007 study conducted by a student-and-professor team at the University of Chicago, the researchers found that almost half of their doctor respondents (45 percent) had prescribed placebos in their regular clinical practice and, of those, half had also prescribed them in the previous year. Twelve percent, however, said they thought placebos should be banned completely from regular clinical practice.

The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, surveyed 466 faculty physicians at Chicago-area medical schools. Of all the physicians surveyed--whether or not they had prescribed placebos—96 percent believed that the placebos could have real therapeutic effects.

In another study, led by the National Institutes of Health and published in the British Medical Journal, a team of researchers found a similar high frequency of doctors prescribing placebos in the US. About half of the respondents (a combination of internists and rheumatologists) reported prescribing placebos on a regular basis, with 62 percent of those surveyed saying they believed the practice to be ethically permissible.

Why are doctors prescribing placebos with such high frequency?

Doctors in the Chicago study reported some of their reasons:

  • To calm down a patient.
  • To respond to demands for medication that the doctor felt was unnecessary.
  • To do something after all other clinical treatment options had failed.

Among the Chicago-area doctors who prescribed placebos, 1 in 5 said they outright lied to patients by claiming that a placebo was medication. In the other cases, the doctors explained the placebos to their patients, saying things like--the substance might help them, and wouldn't hurt them.

In the second study, published in BMJ, the doctors who prescribed placebo treatments most commonly described them to patients as a potentially beneficial medicine or a treatment not typically used for their condition (68 percent), and only rarely did they
explicitly describe the treatment as placebos (18.5 percent).

So how would you know if your doctor was prescribing you a placebo? Although placebos are typically associated with saline and sugar pills, according to the study led by the National Institutes of Health, there are four other placebos that doctors commonly prescribe:

  • Vitamins
  • Over-the-counter painkillers
  • Antibiotics
  • Sedatives

If you suspect your doctor is prescribing a placebo:

  1. Ask your doctor if the "medication" has been proven to help your problem.
  2. If it hasn't, ask your doctor if he or she has any reason to think it will work for you.
  3. Ask if there are any side effects or is there is a downside to taking the "medication."
  4. If your doctor prescribes a sedative, ask him or her why, and if there is any other treatment—that is not addictive - that you can do. 
  5. From the information your doctor provides, make a decision about whether or not you want to take the medication. 

Placebos have been reported to cure various ailments from the common cold, to depression, to cancer. Studies have shown that believing that you are taking something that will help you get better really can heal you. The placebo effect may be a natural way of medicating yourself without having to take real medication.




Blue, L. Is Your Doctor Prescribing Placebos? Time. January 23, 2008.,8599,1700079,00.html. Accessed Dec. 10, 2009.

Cohen, E. Is your Doctor Prescribing a Placebo? Oct. 30, 2008. Accessed Dec. 10, 2009.

Niemi, M.B. Placebo Effect: A cure in the mind. Scientific American. Feb. 2009. Accessed Dec. 10, 2009.

Silberman, S. Placebos are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers are Desparate to Know Why. Wired Magazine. Aug. 24, 2009. Accessed Dec. 12, 2009.

Steenhuysen, J. Doctors say placebo use common. Reuters. Jan. 3, 2008. Accessed Dec. 12, 2009.

Tilburt, J.C. Emanuel, E.J. Kaptchuck, T.J. et al. Prescribing "placebo treatments": results of national survey of US internists and rheumatologists.  British Medical Journal.  Oct. 23, 2008;337:a1938.