Doctors Regularly Prescribe Placebos

According to Green, the practice of prescribing patients over-the-counter cough and cold medications disguised as a prescription-strength antibiotic is not uncommon.

"The placebos that I commonly prescribe are cough medications and decongestants," Green said. "Randomized controlled trials show they don't really do anything, but for those patients who must have a prescription -- they just don't think it's 'strong' if it's over-the-counter -- they work."

A Safe Solution?

But the authors also wrote in the report that "a small but notable proportion of physicians reported using antibiotics (13 percent) and sedatives (13 percent) as placebo treatments."

While many experts said that the use of vitamins, sugar pills or even over-the-counter painkillers as placebos is perfectly safe, many believe using antibiotics and sedatives as placebos are a different story.

According to some experts, prescribing antibiotics as a placebo could be contributing to the issue of antibiotic resistance, or the ability of bacteria to withstand the effects of antibiotic treatments.

"We do believe that treating infections with antibiotics when they are not indicated may lead to increased resistance but that is not entirely clear," said Dr. Barbara Yawn, director of research at the Olmsted Medical Center, University of Minnesota.

Nonetheless, most experts agree that it is the over-prescribing of antibiotics that has lead to such strong antibiotic resistance among the population today.

"Of course, this kind of prescribing contributes to [antibiotic] resistance," Michigan's Green said. "Placebos should be cheap and safe."

When Patients Demand Pills

But Green said what drives many physicians to prescribe such placebos is the demand of the patients themselves.

"If you try to tell [the patient], correctly, that an antibiotic won't treat their virus, they either won't believe you or get angry," Green said.

While Denver's Palen believes the answer to avoiding this scenario is explaining to the patient "the reasons behind the... treatments you advise [them] to undertake," many doctors say there is simply not enough time in one doctor's visit to do so.

"Visits are now so short and for primary care ... that there is not time to spend the five, 10, 15 or 20 minutes that are required to explain why an antibiotic is not a good treatment for a viral respiratory infection," researcher Yawn said.

But despite the barriers to properly informing each and every patient about the treatment they are prescribed, many experts said the practice of deceitfully prescribing placebos has no place in clinical practice.

"There is no better or 'safer' way to prescribe a placebo," said Dr. Gil Holland, a private practice physician in Chandler, Ariz. "Every medication, even those that appear benign, have the potential for harm.

"I think that the medical world at large needs to revert back to the oath to 'above all else do no harm,' he said, "despite external pressures."

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