Half of Doctors Admit Giving Placebos

About half of doctors admit to intentionally deceiving patients by prescribing placebos, but might the ends justify the means?

A controversial paper was published in the American Journal of Bioethics arguing that it’s not only OK for doctors to lie to patients, but that we have a “duty to deceive.” Unlike what you see on television, roughly half the time a patient walks into a doctor’s office, a firm diagnosis cannot be made. Half the time the doctor doesn’t know what’s going on. So why not give the patient a sugar pill, such as a homeopathic remedy—which is often just that, an actual sugar pill—or something like a Bach flower remedy? Just because they don’t work better than placebo, doesn’t mean they don’t work. See my video Is Homeopathy Just Placebo?

Placebos are certainly safer than prescribing an actual drug. As I document in my Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death video, prescription drugs kill an estimated 106,000 Americans a year, effectively making doctors the 6th leading cause of death.

Even just offering a made-up diagnosis and false reassurance seems to work. In one landmark study, two hundred patients for whom no definite diagnosis could be made were randomized into two groups. The honesty group was told “I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” and the dishonesty group was given some fake but firm diagnosis and told confidently they’d get better in a few days—and guess what, they did! They were 90 percent more likely to be cured. A Deception Flowchart has even been devised to help us doctors decide, for example, if we should consider a “lying” versus a “non-lying deception” to meet objectives.

Those on the pro-truth side of the fence argue that first of all, placebos aren’t necessarily always safe. The sugar in the sugar pills is typically lactose (milk sugar), for which most of humanity is intolerant after infancy. There was a famous cancer drug trial in which the chemotherapy caused a surprising reduction in nausea and vomiting compared to placebo, but that may have been because it was compared to a placebo made out of lactose. See my video Infant Nearly Killed by Homeopathy for an extreme example of this.

Pro-truth advocates accuse doctors of disease-mongering. By defining vague symptoms as an entity requiring a treatment, healthy people are converted into patients. “They need explanation and reassurance that promote autonomy,” reads one editorial, “not to be given faith in a non-existent disease and crackpot medicine.” If all one cares about is beneficial medical consequences, “might not doctors also have a duty to prescribe things like chanting, crystals, and séances?”

Deception advocates reply: “Doctors have a duty to do the best they can to relieve a patient’s symptoms. If that means they prescribe a placebo, or even conduct a séance…then there is a duty to do these things. If a doctor can really convince a patient that a chant will cure his headache, then it very likely will, and she should ululate it at the top of her lungs.” In fact, “It is a type of deception that patients ought to be thankful for, just as we are thankful when we receive a mendacious compliment from a friend.” Of course you don’t look fat in that dress!

So how many doctors lie to their patients? About half of surveyed internal medicine doctors and rheumatologists in the United States report prescribing placebo treatments on a regular basis. Similar numbers have been found in Canada, Europe, Israel, and New Zealand. Click on the above study to see the studies themselves.

Surveys show that prescribing placebo treatments seems to be common and is viewed as ethically permissible by physicians. I personally find it ironic that physicians often condemn alternative medicine quacks for giving useless remedies when they themselves do the same thing. As one physician commented, “The vow we take is the Hippocratic oath—not the hypocritic one.”

What does everyone think about this practice?

Would you want to be lied to by your doctor if it would help make you better?

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos here and watch my full 2012-2013 year-in-review presentation Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death.

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Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rogers5 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rogers5 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

Nina S.
Nina S.5 months ago


Lucille Mullen
Lucille Mullen3 years ago

Politicians, our governments, lawyers, teachers, ministers and priests all lie to us....why not doctors? Why should they be a cut above? Why ??? Because our very lives depend on their integrity and expertise, their intuition and most of all their honesty. Please don't lie to me Doctor !!!

3 years ago

Dave C. - a lie is a lie. The truth would be to say "I either don't know what is wrong with you or I think it's all in your head, so I am going to give you a sugar pill and see what happens." The first option protects the ego of the "physician" at the expense of the person who is placing his/her trust in their hands, and the second option deprives that same person from empowering their self from being a full partner in healing themselves. It is a complete betrayal of what should be a sacred healing bond.

If we can not trust; if we can not speak truth to each other; we are lost to each other. And the practice of medicine is nothing but a farce.

By the way, I practice veterinary medicine. Placebos don't work in animals - good, honest medical and healing practice does. It may be a little more difficult and time consuming that bullshitting your patients, but the outcomes are authentic.

Dave C.
David C.3 years ago

its not a lie if they say "I have a pill that helps and it does", its only a lie when it doesn't....

3 years ago

Placebo effect. Hm. The ability to believe in a healing force? So instead of being told the truth,that we really can heal ourselves, we've been fed a diet of lies; that only drugs and doctors hold the magic. So they feed us magic pills and deceive us, rather than working with our own universe-given energy to heal ourselves. And then deceive themselves into thinking this is OK.

But there would be no profit, socially or economically, for the telling of that truth for those that benefit from the industry, and so deceit has become part of the fabric of the medical industry. And if there is "collateral damage?" Just the cost of doing business.

Kenneth L.
Kenneth L.3 years ago

Drug trial studies are supposed to account for any placebo effects in determining drug efficacy and subsequent manufacture to the public, but the trials are funded usually by the drug companies themselves and so biased due to profit agendas. Drug companies also skew trial results by publishing only the positive results, no negative ones.
That being said, the placebo effect is very real.. Most people don't understand it and dismiss it.

Dr Karen Jacobson

There are natural ways to create health without the use of drugs. If a doctor knows that he/she has no reason to medicate they should be upfront & either have the ability to offer other solutions or refer to those who can.

Interstellar Daydreamer
Sky Price3 years ago

That is really not okay. They should tell people exactly what they're giving them, which they have a hard time doing as it is. As if they actually know anything about the drugs they give out.