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.

Back To Lissa

Well said, Susan! I totally agree. In fact, those who study the placebo effect explain the treatment effect in 5 ways that Iím writing about in my book†Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself. (Iíve added #6 on my own, because nobody seems willing to talk about God in scientific studies, but it seems like an obvious possibility to me!)

6 Explanations For the Placebo Effect In Clinical Trials

  • Positive Belief/ Expectation/ Hope - Because of the ethics of informed consent, patients know they will be receiving either the real treatment or a placebo, but many patients in a placebo group believe they are getting the real treatment when theyíre not and so they expect to get well. Expectation and belief can be self-fulfilling prophecies.
  • Classical conditioning - We all know the classic Pavlovís dog experiment. Not only did Pavlovís dog salivate in response to his Scooby snack. He also started salivating when he heard the bell that accompanied his Scooby snack. While salivation in response to food is an unconditioned physiological event, salivating in response to the bell is a conditioned response. In other words, the body responds to a signal from the mind, and perhaps the placebo effect works the same way. If youíre used to getting a real drug from a person in a white coat and subsequently getting better, you may then be able to trigger the body to get well by simply receiving a sugar pill from someone in a white coat.
  • Emotional support - A patient in a clinical trial receives attention and nurturing – sometimes even healing touch – often by a person in a white coat, which has historically come to represent health and healing. Someone cares how these patients are doing. Someone listens when they complain. Someone cheers when they start feeling better. We all want to feel seen and heard, and the therapeutic relationship alone can relieve symptoms.
  • Spontaneous Remission - When patients in a placebo group get better, some of them might have gotten better anyway. Many diseases, left untreated, will resolve on their own. After all, the body is a self-healing organism, constantly striving to return to homeostasis.† So even if you stuck patients in a dark room, treated them with nothing, and ignored them, a certain percentage of them would likely improve. Although their study had many design flaws and was later largely discredited by scientists,† Hrobjartsson & Gotzscheís New England Journal of Medicine article ďIs The Placebo Powerless?Ē brings up a valid argument, claiming that we canít claim that any study demonstrates a clear placebo effect unless the study also includes a no treatment group (which most donít).† If they did, we could clearly tease out spontaneous remissions from other factors that contribute to the placebo effect.
  • Co-treatments - While most studies try to carefully screen these out, patients in clinical trials may also be surreptitiously seeking other treatments that may confound the data. If someone gets better while in a placebo group, itís possible that the other treatment theyíve been sneaking under the table is responsible for the improvement.
  • Divine intervention - Obviously, I wonít be using any scientific studies to support this claim, but to be fair to any Higher Power who might intervene on behalf of someone in need of healing, Iíll argue that one explanation for why someone gets well when treated with a placebo is spiritual. Perhaps God (or Source or The Universe or whatever name you choose to use) waves a healing magic wand and someone is cured. Iím a deeply spiritual person who believes in many things I canít prove, so I feel compelled to include this as a possible explanation, even though you might argue itís not ďscientific.Ē

How patients get better doesnít matter as much to me as that they do, but understanding the process can certainly help us facilitate the self-healing superpowers that lie within us all.

Committing to helping you heal,


Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of†OwningPink.com, author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013),†TEDx speaker, and health care revolutionary.†Join her newsletter list for free guidance on healing yourself, and check her out on†Twitter and†Facebook.


Norma V.
Norma Villarreal7 years ago

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.

Mari Garcia
Mari Garcia7 years ago

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.

Susan S.
Paul Stephan7 years ago

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

Magdalen B.
Magdalen B7 years ago

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

Marianne Barto
Marianne B7 years ago

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

Emma R.
Emma Rose7 years ago

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

Harsha Vardhana R
Harsha Vardhana7 years ago

I believe it is a triangle!

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

Golden R.
Golden R.7 years ago

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 time...it is nicer to have a compassionate doctor that can prescribe PAIN KILLER!

Marie W.
Marie W7 years ago

Need doctor home visits again.

Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson7 years ago

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.