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What Heals Most: The Pill or The Practitioner?

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What Heals Most: The Pill or The Practitioner?

In response to my blog post†Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself, Mind/Body Medicine expert†Dr. Susan Bernstein wrote a comment that bears highlighting. In a rousing conversation in the comments, we were debating whether doctors should be actively prescribing placebos when patients suffer from conditions for which we have inadequate treatment.

Dr. Bernstein brought up the issue of whether itís actually the placebo pill that demonstrates the healing effect or whether itís the doctor in the white coat doling it out thatís responsible for the profound treatment effect we often see in research studies when people are treated with placebos.

Dr. Bernsteinís Thoughts

Knowing a lot about the placebo effect from my own research as a PhD in Mind/Body Psychology, my thought is that placebos are probably more likely to work when the patient trusts the doctor. That means that the doctor needs to be able to build trust, even knowing that a placebo is being prescribed. Can all doctors keep a straight face when they’re doing that? Or build trust if they know that they believe in the placebo, but they’re not disclosing it’s a placebo? I don’t know. I imagine it depends on the doctor.

In psychology, extensive research has been done to look at the different modalities and methods used to heal clients. For example, looking at art therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or Jungian analysis, what patients really say helps is the relationship. At least from a psychological standpoint, most of our wounds happen in relationship, so we need relationships to heal us.

It used to be that we had plenty of time to talk with our doctors, and with that rapport, we built a level of trust. In a way, a doctor could be a shaman, and help us to heal because we believed in that individual. In that case, I imagine it’s the resonance — the alignment, between doctor and patient — that creates the conditions for healing.

Susanís Healing Journey

Over the past five years, I have experienced a health issue that initially took me to a homeopath, an acupuncturist, and a naturopath, all of whom contributed something, not only to my healing, but to my personal development. I chose these people because they reflected back to me values and approaches that felt right. I am not the type to trust a doctor simply because of his or her credentials. Harvard, Stanford, that’s nice, but it’s not the university that heals. It’s the practitioner and his or her ability to touch something in me that’s ready to hear and take in the guidance, be that pills, surgery, exercise, or some other prescription.

I’m a big believer in the theory that we have everything we need inside of ourselves to thrive (no wonder, on the career front, I call my company “Work from Within“). We may not always know how to tap that inner wisdom, but I think it’s the relationship with the practitioner, even more importantly than the placebo pill, that promotes our inner resources to move us into a state of well-being.

Grumpy Doc Vs. Kind Doc

Let’s put it this way: I bet if we did an experiment and compared an uptight, angry, arrogant doctor who had a so-called “miracle cure,” and a really kind, empathic, caring doctor who had a cure that was likely to work but uncertain, most people would get better with the kind doctor. Now, I could be wrong. Maybe some people actually trust the arrogant doctor more. We’d have to test for preference of personality as part of the experiment, of course.

All that said, I’m in favor of a strong, caring relationship between doctor and patient, one that builds trust. I believe that, in the long-run, that’s a prescription for preventative wellness.

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Lissa Rankin

Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the†Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of†Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself.† She is on a grassroots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself.† Lissa blogs at† and also created two online communities -† and† She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.


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2:31PM PDT on Jun 18, 2012

It is about healing the body, mind, and soul and not just fixing the symptoms. Bless the doctors whose medical skills can lead you along a healing path as you find what is right for you individually.

7:30PM PDT on Jun 14, 2012

I actually think it's good a doctor prescribes a placebo. It's better to make sure its not a psychosomatic problem over an actual medical problem. How many people are being pumped up with chemicals they don't really need because of a psychosomtic problem.

9:27AM PDT on Jun 13, 2012

Almost always--people over pills, or at least people first, pills second.

2:58AM PDT on Jun 13, 2012

I think it's rotten to sell trusting people a useless pill deliberately.

8:08PM PDT on Jun 12, 2012

It is so true to find a good Doctor. I am female, so I have a female Doctor. I feel they can relate to our health/problems better than a male Dr. I'm thankful that she is not one of those prescription happy Dr''s, who in my opinion believe they get a kick back from all the pharmaceutical reps.You have to remember that any "pill" has side effects, is toxic to your liver, and/or may be addictive. If possible, try an alternative. Now, I understand if you really need one, and it's helpful to your diagnosis, then do what the Dr. orders. Thanks

8:05PM PDT on Jun 12, 2012

Maybe the doctor is grumpy because he or she is sickly they need to take the pills!

7:45PM PDT on Jun 12, 2012

I believe it is a triangle!

Pill + Doctor + Person's own belief in the treatment. Of course, there is a universal force too

7:43PM PDT on Jun 12, 2012

well I go in with the attitude my life is a borrowed time...DEATH WONT BE THAT BAD....if I heal I heal..... if I don't oh well.... I live life one day at a is nicer to have a compassionate doctor that can prescribe PAIN KILLER!

5:13PM PDT on Jun 12, 2012

Need doctor home visits again.

5:01PM PDT on Jun 12, 2012

From my experience I think that our own imagination is the most powerful healing/sick making force. We can also be influenced by the imagination of others; one way others can literally "cheer us up" is by sharing with us their imagined vision or faith, be it in crystals, gods,devils, astrological predictions, fortune telling or whatever. Some imaginings strike us as simply "unbelievable" and clearly some people are more gullible/cynical than others, so the effect varies from person to person.

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