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Ignorance on the Placebo Effect

Posted Oct 17 2008 12:03pm

I was reading some blog posts over at Wellsphere when I saw the following thoughts on the placebo effect from Seth Roberts

What Should Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trials Be Replaced With?

For a sick person, which is worse?

1. Getting better for the wrong reason.

2. Wasting a lot of money.

It sounds like a joke — #1 isn’t even harmful, whereas the cost of health care is a very serious problem. Yet the FDA and legislators with FDA oversight have been given this choice — and chosen #1. They have chosen to protect us against #1 but not #2.

If you get better from a placebo effect, that’s the wrong reason. How dare you! The requirement that drugs be better than placebo controls prevents this from happening. The requirement might have been — but isn’t — that a new drug be better than pre-existing alternatives. Many aren’t but they are always more expensive — not to mention more risky.

Now Seth has a Ph.D. in psychology, blogs on science-related topics, and seems like a smart enough guy, but his post is a bit misguided.

1) The reason that drugs are required to perform better than a placebo is because the placebo effect tends to only occur in a small set of patients. That is that the mental makeup of a specific patient is the cause of a placebo response (irregardless of the treatment). It is also not clear whether a placebo respondee is “actually getting better”. It is just as likely that they were not actually sick in the first place (or as sick as they thought).

2) Those patients who are not predisposed toward exhibiting placebo responses need to be given an actual effective treatment to “get better” and therefore deserve medications that exhibit “better than placebo” characteristics. Giving such a sick patient a sham treatment (rather than one that can actually work) can be very harmful in that the person’s condition can actually worsen.

3) There is a requirement from FDA (and regulatory agencies worldwide) that new drugs be as good or better than existing medications; or that they provide some sort of unique benefit (or reduced risk).

4) The expense of new medications is largely due to the high cost of research to make those medications (and fund future research). The low-hanging fruit is largely gone.



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