Intended for healthcare professionals


Placebos in practice

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 21 October 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:927
  1. David Spiegel (, Willson professor
  1. Stanford Medical Center, Stanford, CA 94305-5718, USA

    Doctors use them, they work in some conditions, but we don't know how they work

    Placebo comes from the Latin for “I will please.” Pleasing a patient would seem to be a good thing to do. Yet considerable controversy exists about the use of a biologically inert or irrelevant substance with therapeutic intent. Nitsan and Lichtenberg show in this issue (p 944) that placebos are often used in modern medicine.1 Their survey of 89 doctors and nurses providing hospital based and ambulatory care in Israel found that 60% used placebos in their practice, most often (43%) to fend off an “unjustified” demand for medication, to calm a patient (38%), as an analgesic (38%), or, more problematically, as a diagnostic tool (28%). The paper makes it clear that the placebo pleases modern doctors. Should it? If the placebo effect is real, is it right to use it?

    Most of medicine used placebos at one time. Medicine in the 20th century was supposed to end this. We would use only scientifically proved active pharmacological and surgical interventions. Yet only …

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