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The University of Southampton

97 per cent of UK doctors have given placebos to patients

Published: 18 March 2013

A survey of UK doctors found that 97 per cent have prescribed placebo treatments to patients at least once in their career.

Researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Southampton, which included Dr Felicity Bishop, Lecturer in Health Psychology, discovered that 97 per cent of doctors have used ‘impure’ placebo treatments, while 12 per cent have used ‘pure’ placebos.

‘Impure’ placebos are treatments that are unproven, such as antibiotics for suspected viral infections, or more commonly non-essential physical examinations and blood tests performed to reassure patients. ‘Pure’ placebos are treatments, such as sugar pills or saline injections, which contain no active ingredients.

A random sample of doctors was surveyed online, and returned 783 responses. This sample was found to be representative of all doctors registered with the General Medical Council (GMC). The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research, the University of Oxford Department of Primary Health Care Sciences and The Southampton Complementary Medical Research Trust. The results are published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Dr Bishop comments, "I worked with colleagues from Oxford and Southampton to design the survey and interpret the results. The data show that doctors are using placebos to treat patients in primary care in the UK. It is important to know that doctors are doing this to try to help their patients, not to try to deceive them."

The survey showed that doctors prescribing both pure and impure placebos reported doing so for broadly similar reasons. Placebos were mainly given to either induce psychological treatment effects, because patients requested treatment or to reassure patients.

Ethical attitudes towards placebo usage varied among doctors, with 66 per cent saying that pure placebos are ethically acceptable under certain circumstances and 33 per cent saying they are never acceptable. Impure placebos were more widely accepted, with 84 per cent of doctors deeming them acceptable.

For both pure and impure placebos, over 90 per cent of doctors objected to their use where it endangered patient/doctor trust and over 80 per cent were against using them if it involved deception.

“This latest study with the University of Oxford demonstrates that doctors are generally using placebos in good faith to help patients,” says Professor George Lewith, co-lead author of the study from the University of Southampton. “Other previous published studies by Southampton have clearly shown placebos can help many people and can be effective for a long time after administration. The placebo effect works by releasing our body's own natural painkillers into our nervous system. In my opinion the stigma attached to placebo use is irrational, and further investigation is needed to develop ethical, cost-effective placebos.”

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