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Placebos and health care

Field Notes

The power of belief - and its effects on health - is getting a new look.

*A recent study of a baldness remedy found that 86 percent of men getting the drug kept or grew hair. But so did 42 percent of those who got a placebo.

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*A new report from the Department of Health and Human Services says Prozac and other modern antidepressants are no more effective than previous generations of such drugs, despite all the hype - and results - they've achieved.

*In Japan, 13 subjects had poison ivy rubbed on one arm and a benign leaf rubbed on the other - but they were told the reverse. All 13 got rashes on the arm rubbed with the harmless leaf.

These are facets of an age-old story that's getting new attention as more physicians explore the link between mind and body. "For years we in the medical community made fun of the placebo effect," says Herbert Benson, MD, of Harvard Medical School, but these and other examples "attest to the power of human belief to impact our bodies." In fact, he says placebos can help 70 to 90 percent of all conditions - everything from deafness to nausea. Dr. Benson directs a series of conferences called "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine," the most recent of which was held in Chicago last weekend. Faculty and attendees included health-care professionals, clergy, and lay people, including representatives of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, which publishes this newspaper.

A recent Boston Globe survey found that 79 percent of some 850 mentally ill patients given placebos in lab tests had such a downturn that they had to drop out of the tests. Three factors impact placebo effectiveness, Benson says: belief and expectancy of the patient, belief and expectancy of the caregiver, and the strength of the relationship between the patient and the caregiver. But critics argue placebos can be dangerous.

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