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Science
PLACEBO
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Monday 18 and 25 August 2008 21:02 - 21:30 

Our beliefs and expectations about treatments can have a dramatic effect on our health – the so-called ‘placebo effect’. Doctor and writer Ben Goldacre presents a two part series.


Programme 1: The Placebo Effect

When a new drug or treatment is dismissed as being ‘no better than placebo’, we all get the message: any benefits are probably ‘all in the mind’, it’s ineffective, not worth pursuing. Yet studies suggest that the placebo effect can have a significant impact on the course of a wide range of illnesses, including depression, irritable bowel syndrome and angina. It seems that it’s the meaning of a particular treatment to the patient that’s crucial. For example, research shows that the colour of an inert sugar-pill and even the branding on the box, can alter a pill’s effect. In this first programme, Ben Goldacre looks at the growing body of research into the placebo effect, and explores the factors influencing the strength of the placebo response.

Listen again Listen to programme 1
.

Programme 2: The Implications for Medicine

Studies using placebo or ‘sham’ treatments show that what a doctor says to a patient, along with the ritual of the therapeutic encounter itself, can have a real impact on health outcomes. This raises important ethical issues for those who work in medicine. A doctor’s first commitment is to the wellbeing and health of the patient. Given the undeniable benefits of placebos in the management of many hard-to-treat conditions, can it ever be right to prescribe a placebo without informing the patient? Could complementary therapies, many of whose specific effects are unproven, represent the acceptable face of placebo prescription? Has modern, scientific medicine, with its emphasis on ‘magic bullets’ targeting specific diseases, lost sight of the importance of the ‘art’ of medicine?

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