Saturday, April 10, 2010

The dreaded words "placebo effect"

Definition in the Concise Oxford dictionary: “Medicine given to humour, rather than cure, the patient” (coming from the Latin word “to please”)

How I hate the word placebo and all the baggage of negativity it brings with it! Not only does it patronize the treatment to which it is applied, but, unforgivably, in my view, it also appears to patronize patients by “humouring” them, as if it does not matter if wool is pulled over their eyes in this way.

Calling something a placebo is an acknowledgment that it helps the patient feel better, whilst at the same time mocking this help. But if a patient feels better we should surely be applauding rather than mocking. And hidden somewhere behind the use of the word is the implication that making people feel better is somehow not the aim of treatment. I also see this approach as evidence of the Western mind-set determined to deride what it doesn’t understand. This is nowhere more evident than in comments like these directed at complementary medicine.

Why, then, I ask, are not some orthodox treatments, such as sleeping pills or antidepressants, also labelled as placebo treatments? These, too, could surely be said to fall under the definition of humouring, rather than curing, the patient!

1 comment:

  1. Dear Nora,

    Only yesterday I was reading in quite an old book I stumbled upon, (called Placebo and the philosophy of medicine by Howard Brody). According to this book the word 'placebo-effect' can be used in a variety of ways. The use that you are referring to is one of the least inclusive, other uses do include everything you mention in your argument.

    I myself do prefer the use proposed by Daniel Moerman in his book: Meaning, medicine and the
    'placebo-effect'. (I think he is not the first to put this, but his book is a very good read and his idea is absolutely clear). He offers the term 'meaning effect' as a much better alternative. Because the attribution of meaning, by means of the context, by aligning with the deepest expectations of the patient, by helping the patient realign himself with his life as it is meant to be is the best we can do as practitioners.

    So personally, I like the word placebo-effect very much and I could not do without the 'meaning-effect' for a single day.

    Best wishes,