Placebos: Accept no substitutes

By Darrel Crain, D.C.

“The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease,” Voltaire noted with intuitive precision.

Occasionally, the government asks us for help in its thankless task to reduce the unintended collateral damage caused by good-hearted, but busy, medical professionals.

For example, if you find yourself in the hospital, Uncle Sam asks that you do your part to reduce human-to-human microbe transmission. Your job is to ask all the doctors if they washed their hands before coming into your room. As you can imagine, some doctors are not pleased to have patients asking them if their hands are clean and they may get snippy. Simply remind them you are under orders from the government.

Here is another tip to help avoid tragic mistakes in the operating room. Before the surgery, borrow the nurse’s felt tip marker and write instructions on yourself to remind the doctor where to operate. Apparently, doctors usually remember why they are performing the operation, so you just need to remind them where. Mark the correct spot on your body with “Operate Here.” Then, on the opposite side write “Do Not Operate Here.” I am not making this up. It is hoped that this tip will help your surgery start off on the right foot. Or was it the left foot? Anyway, it is best to do this marking job before they give you any anesthetics.

Of course, the biggest health problem facing our country is the drug problem. Dr. Allen Roses, executive vice president for an enormously large pharmaceutical company, sketched for us an outline of the biggest drug problem facing America during a public comment he made two years ago.

Now, you may be thinking that the biggest drug problem in our country is illicit drugs. And truly, this is a big problem, especially for the poor drug dealers faced with unfair competition from doctors madly scribbling prescriptions for more powerful painkillers than ever before.

Alternatively, you may be under the impression that the Medicare drug problem is our biggest problem. That’s only because you are a health care consumer. Ask any drug company stockholder and he will tell you that the new Medicare rules are working just fine, just as planned.

Both of these problems though, pale in comparison to the one Dr. Roses brought up: “The vast majority of drugs — more than 90 per cent — only work in 30 or 50 percent of the people. I wouldn’t say that most drugs don’t work. I would say that most drugs work in 30 to 50 percent of people,” Roses said.

Think of it, anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of all people who take prescription medications gain no benefit from them at all! Of course, this was not big news for people close to the pharmaceutical industry. However, public discussion of this basic fact by a drug company executive was a serious breach of etiquette. Industry secrets such as this are intended to remain locked in the basement out of public view. Roses’ colleagues throughout the industry were understandably distressed and annoyed. Public relations departments went into overtime with damage control to try and “clarify” what the good doctor meant to say, namely, “Have a nice day.”

Dr. Roses’ admission was remarkable not only for its frankness, but also because it affirmed that active drugs work no better than placebos where it counts the most: in the real world of the drug consumer’s experience.

The “pristine” laboratory conditions necessarily imposed by drug trials, such as only using healthy people, and only giving people one drug at a time, account for the higher scores achieved in drug trials. Meanwhile, out in the real world, sick people are the ones taking these drugs, and many of them are taking three or more drugs every day.

To put into perspective a meager 30 to 50 percent effectiveness for licensed pharmaceuticals, consider that fifty years of placebo research has documented that people experience a benefit 30 to 70 percent of the time when given placebos.

The placebo is perhaps the most fascinating and mysterious entity in the history of medicine. Some have hailed the humble placebo as the safest, most effective medicine ever discovered, even claiming that the history of effective medical treatment is the history of the placebo response.

Robert C. Peale put it this way, “The best and most efficient pharmacy is within your own system.”

Placebo is Latin for “I shall please.”

The placebo response has been observed for centuries. Placebos have always been more than just sugar pills, including fake surgeries and procedures. The response mechanism is not well understood, but the patient’s belief that the sugar pill or sham surgery is going to help him somehow triggers an inborn healing response.

But back to America’s drug problem. Prescription drugs accidentally kill about 1,104 people every single day, or about 403,000 people a year. “Most men die of their remedies, not of their illnesses,” noted Moliere.

The federal government, to its credit, has never faltered in its efforts to defend American citizens from prescription drug abuse, which means sending out tersely worded press releases from time to time.

Take antibiotics, for example. No! I am only kidding! Do not take antibiotics unless your doctor threatens to take away those little free sample packets of powerful painkilling drugs! The point is that, for 20 years, our government has repeatedly sent out warnings using strong language, but antibiotic overuse and abuse continues to grow at an alarming rate.

Luckily, the remedy to all this is within our grasp. Finally, an idea everybody can live with. We can save thousands of lives and the drug companies can continue to reap billions in obscene profits. Meanwhile, doctors can continue writing loads of prescriptions and be duly rewarded by the drug companies.

Since real drugs work 30 to 50 percent of the time, and placebos work 30 to 70 percent of the time, we can just start mixing them together inside the little pill bottles! The pills will look the same, smell the same and get the same results. Nobody will know whether they are taking a real pill or a placebo, but it just won’t matter!

Eventually, someone at the manufacturing plant will figure out how much cheaper it would be to just fill all the bottles with 100 percent candy. Who cares? I look forward to the day when the worst adverse reactions to prescribed drugs will be dental problems caused by eating too many sugar pills.

Copyright © 2006 Darrel Crain – All rights reserved.

Dr. Darrel Crain
Family Chiropractor
Natural Health Writer
President, CCA San Diego County District
619-445-0100 @ 7:33 pm | Article ID: 1147660433