The placebo effect

Published: Monday | December 17, 2012 Comments 0

Garth A. Rattray, Contributor

Many years ago, distributors of alternative medical products tried to recruit me into selling them in my office. Their first mistake was to begin their spiel by telling me how lucrative it would be. Although I would like to be able to retire one day, my primary concern is for my patients' well-being, so bringing up money turned me off badly.

The representatives told me which of my (famous) colleagues were making a lot of money by selling their 'natural' products. I interrupted them and asked for the hard, scientific evidence that their various 'health products' worked.

Then came their second and egregious mistake. They only produced colourful and picturesque pamphlets with the smiling faces of 'patients' giving fantastic testimonials of how great they felt on the relevant product.

I could not get one single double-blind (well-established, scientific) study proving anything. All I got was anecdotal evidence (which carries no scientific weight). This is the sort of pseudo-science practised by several of our so-called, self-styled, dubiously qualified 'naturopathic physicians'.

Don't get me wrong - I feel certain that there are several genuine naturopaths, and that some natural products are probably beneficial, but some quacks in that field promote their products as being able to cure/heal all sorts of dangerous cancers and metabolic diseases (like diabetes, thyroid and cholesterol problems). They also claim that natural treatments/cures are totally safe; however, it's a fact that any product that does good for you may do bad to you.

Two of my patients met a premature end because they believed in one naturopathic charlatan. They showed me his (standard) 'prescription' - which he gives to everyone. He ticked off his products that they must buy for many thousands of dollars.

Sadly, both clung to his verbal promise that he would have cured them, in spite of my pleas to take advantage of tried and proven medical science before the conditions (a small and resectable lung cancer and an early kidney failure) became unredeemable. The cruel and greedy individual made (and probably still makes) a fortune by taking advantage of some people's fear of anything medical.

What many don't know is that there is something called the placebo (Latin for 'I will please') effect. A placebo is a harmless medicine or procedure that has no therapeutic effect. Sometimes, just speaking with a doctor or any health-care provider that you trust makes some patients feel better. Sometimes the effect is demonstrable (quantifiable) and can last for up to eight weeks at a time, but it is limited in its effectiveness.

conditions dependent

The placebo effect came into prominence in the 1960s, when it was recognised that some people could gain benefit from believing that a substance was making them better. In order for a drug to prove itself effective, it must do better than a placebo would in treating a malady.

Depending on the condition, placebos may produce positive or negative (nocebo) effects in 20 per cent to as high as 50 per cent of patients. Some conditions lend themselves to the placebo effect more than others. Although harmless, inert placebo pills have been tested in a wide range of conditions, neuroses, erectile dysfunction, all types of pain and even high blood pressure appear to be somewhat readily alleviated by them.

So, the next time that someone suggests that you use a natural product, remember that your mind may be responsible for your improvement - but that can only go so far and no further.

If you have a serious condition like hypertension, diabetes, cancer, cardiac problems and several others, don't assume that a plant can, for instance, 'clean out your blocked arteries' or cure you of anything. Get scientifically proven medication/intervention and save your life.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garthrattray@gmail.com

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