Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"Placebo Effect" Causes Greater Harm than Good

A review by Psychology Research (@psychresearch) of 21 randomized trials shows that the "placebo effect" causes adverse side-effects in 45% of study participants. This is an absolutely fascinating result, because previous studies of the placebo effect show that a pill that has no medicinal value whatsoever causes participants to improve at a rate of only 35%. What this means is that taking a pill with no medicinal value whatsoever is more likely to cause Harmful effects at a greater rate than it provides a benefit. This could have a lot to do with medication non-compliance and aversion to doctors and hospitals. If nearly half of people report an adverse effect from just taking a pill, and only a little more than a third report a positive effect, then it's no wonder why most people are adverse to taking medication!

I've always though reports on the placebo effect were a bit silly, and now it makes sense why. Scientists and doctors were always delighted to point out that we stupid patients were dumb enough to be fooled by a sugar pill. Doctors took this as proof of their magical, majestic auras... That just the idea that what you were taking was a "medicine" was enough to make you better! The idea of a magic pill was so powerful, that the medicine didn't even have to be real. Patients would get better just because you told them to. How amazing is that!?!?!

Turns out, that was only part of the story, and not even the most important part.

In fact, the though of a medicine is so powerful that it actually HARMS patients at a rate of nearly half. Nearly HALF! That means that patients are so leery, so worried about what their doctor is doing to them, that they will experience an event that convinces them a sugar pill is damaging them.

This experience of harm at a greater rate than help actually fits with what we already know about the human brain. We experience loss at a rate of three times higher than gain. For example, if you insult your spouse once, it takes at least three compliments to make up for that one slight. Similarly, when frightened, we will assume that the noise in the grass is a tiger, rather than assuming it's the wind. Why? Because that's what helped us survive vicious predators as stone-aged cultures. In the past, it has been biologically advantageous to assume the worst. So our brains are hard-wired to do so.

So it makes perfect sense that patients would report rates of greater harm than good from a medication that does nothing. And doctors should realize that they are working at a disadvantage when patients are left to guess whether a medication is going to cause harm or good. The placebo effect is NOT some positive powerful force. The placebo effect is, in fact, a powerful NEGATIVE force, and one than can undermine the entire true effect of a medication! Studies prior to this have shown that chronic illness patients have a medication non-compliance rate of a third to one half, and now we know why. It makes perfect sense, and the myth of the positive placebo effect being the only force at play is totally BUSTED.

We also now have a new understanding of non-compliance. It isn't willfulness. It isn't a lack of willpower or an inability to form new habits (though these things can exacerbate the problem). What is really at work here is the fundamental nature of the human brain to avoid harm in situations where not all the variables are known. If this doesn't speak volumes for the need for thorough patient education, I don't know what does. Humans are survivors, and you don't survive by assuming everything is just fine when you know there's something going on that you can't see. Taking a medication is a RISK. So naturally, it is better to assume that the medication is more likely to harm than help when you don't know what it does.

This also speaks to the great divide between doctors and patients in our current medical system: doctors assume that their patients should just rely on their expertise. However doctors get so involved in science that they lose sight of common sense things and get lost in ego-boosting preliminary results, like the belief that the placebo effect resulted in automatically better results for a medication. I don't know how many years it's been pounded into my head, "well, you know, you'd feel better if this was a sugar pill, so I don't know why this real medication isn't working on you..." Well, doc, turns out it's because you were misled to believe just because you have M.D. After your name that means I view you as a Minor Deity. As things really are, M.D. implies Maybe Disaster and you terrify your patients, leaving you at a deficit the moment you show up.

If I could have one wish, it would be to educate the entire medical field about this. We need to wake up to the realities of how I humanely we've been treating patients by keeping them in the dark. We have been willfully inflicting patients to psychological damage as a result of our treatment of them, believing our medical professionals are supposed to be seen as intervening angels, when really they were seen as cloak-and-dagger devils. And as long as we were told that medicine worked a third of the time just because it was called medicine, the angelic myth persisted.

The fairy tale is over. It's time to wake up to reality.

Side Effects: Telling the Real from the Imagined - Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2014

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