'Expensive' Placebos Work Better Than 'Cheap' Ones

Dr. Carmen Green, director of Pain Medicine Research at the University of Michigan Health System, has frequently experienced this phenomenon in her practice.

"Patients come in and say, I saw this on TV and this is what I want," said Green. "But often there are other drugs that are available that are cheaper, or should be tried first."

Besides occasionally annoying doctors, the drive towards more expensive drugs might have costs that go beyond the pockets of people watching drug ads.

"We're all paying for higher health care costs, whether you have government insurance or private insurance," said Green.

Yet, not all is doom and gloom. Ariely and Hadler believe doctors can turn the placebo effect around for the advantage of both the doctor and the patient.

Office Visit: Expanding Placebo

"It really puts a new twist on how we think about reality," said Ariely, who questioned how price and marketing affects the potency of drugs given out in free packets, drugs given in discount rates, or even drugs that come in boring bottles.

For Hadler, the study might convince doctors to develop their own positive marketing for a treatment.

In his own studies, Hadler has found that the way a physician describes a drug can change how much a patient will follow through with a treatment regimen.

"Compliance goes down when you go through all the side effects listed for the drug," said Hadler. "But if you say, 'This is the best thing ever, side effects are rare,' people will respond positively."

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