An international expert on the “placebo effect” says with addiction and abuse of opioid prescription drugs on the rise, it may be time for doctors treating patients with chronic conditions or addictions to consider intermittently substituting substances like morphine with dummy pills.
With or without telling patients.
“Placebos are being used in routine medical practice now by many doctors in many circumstances, but the main goal is to reduce intake of drugs. If we are talking about narcotics and other drugs of abuse, the approach is, for example, give morphine on six consecutive days and then a placebo on the seventh day. There are three or four studies with good scientific approaches to this and in those three countries I mentioned, placebo prescribing is more common.”
Asked about the ethics of substituting pills, he said:
“If you want to reduce intake of certain drugs, why not? I think that’s perfectly ethical, but if you want to prescribe placebos so you aren’t bothered by hospital patients in the middle of the night, that’s a different situation.”
Benedetti told delegates that researchers now understand more about the psychosocial context for real drug or placebo treatment effects. Certain words spoken by the health professional (“This pill is really going to help you”), the rituals associated with treatment (such as needle injections) and other sensory experiences all influence whether patients have positive expectations of health improvement. Personality traits can be important factors in who responds to placebos; optimists are more susceptible to having a placebo response while skeptics may have a nil effect.