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The Almighty Power of the Pill

You can’t watch more than ten minutes of television these days without seeing at least one commercial for some kind of prescription pill that promises relief from any variety of conditions. The ads are cheerful, whimsical, annoying, seductive, and sometimes nauseatingly hokey. But they work.

The ads, that is. And they should, given the price tag. Results from a study released this week [1] at York University showed that the U.S. pharmaceutical industry spends approximately “twice as much on promotion as it does on research and development.” (The industry denies the estimate.) Big Pharma clearly wants us to believe in the power of their products.

With the almighty image of the pill flashing before us at every commercial break, it’s inevitable that consumers will think more about the possibilities of the pill next time they’re in the doctor’s office. Is it any wonder, then, to also read that nearly half of internists surveyed in Chicago say they’ve prescribed placebos to their patients?

A University of Chicago research team sent surveys about placebo use to 466 internists at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois — Chicago. Half of the recipients responded, and 45 percent of the respondents reported giving a patient a placebo at least once during their years of practice. ‘Placebos have been used in medicine since ancient times and remain both clinically relevant and philosophically interesting. In addition to their recognized use as controls in clinical trials, this study suggests that placebos themselves are viewed as therapeutic tools in medical practice,’ co-author Rachel Sherman, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, said in a prepared statement.

via Live Science [2]

The article presents what is, admittedly, an intriguing and hopeful point about the power of the mind to heal physical symptoms. Yet, it just doesn’t sit quite right. The report is as much a reminder of our culture’s faith in the “pill fix” as it is about mind over matter.

We’re not disputing the possibility of good practical reasons for the role of placebos in patient treatment, particularly in cases like chronic pain. But the fact that it comes more often than not with a prescription pad is, excuse us, a hard pill to swallow.

What are your thoughts?

Jaye Elle [3] Flickr Photo (CC)

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