Giving a placebo without a patient’s knowledge is not acceptable ethics to Canadian physicians. However, in a survey of Canadian physicians, one in five acknowledged occasionally prescribing placebos.
Alongside the debate over the ethics of placebo use, there remains steady and increased research into how placebos encourage the mind to heal the body – it’s often even referenced as a “mind game”. Yet, the fact that a patient’s thought about the drug seems to be the determining factor is hardly a game, given the need we all have to find consistent health outcomes.
Researchers are not entirely sure how the placebo effect works. Some suggest that there is a mind-body connection – that it is all in the patient’s expectation of healing; and others, that it is purely a biological phenomenon. The debate continues – is the drugs’ efficacy in thought or in chemistry? And, even if it is in thought, some would argue it could still be the chemistry of the human brain, right?
Dr. Amir Raz, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, teaches the only course on the science of placebos offered at a Canadian medical school. According to Dr. Raz, placebos have been shown to be “extremely potent” in many fields of medicine, including psychiatry, rheumatology, immunology, pediatrics and even some surgeries.
Research has also shown that other “mental” aspects of the treatment setting make a difference. For example, patients who see a warm and caring physician tend to recover sooner. And at Columbia University, staff and students are encouraged to lay down their stethoscopes and listen to their patient’s stories. Columbia’s medical seminars underscore the connection between the humanities and healing.
While these studies tell us a lot about the effect our thoughts have on our health, they don’t provide consistent or easily explained results. Nor, do they provide a clear path to employing this mind-body connection consistently to treat disease. The most consistent, documented results of healing through mental means are those recorded as the works of Jesus. He clearly understood the impact of a person’s thinking and faith on their health.
Of course, some researchers hold that the impact spirituality and religious practices have on health outcomes – which in numerous studies is consistently positive – is little more than one more example of the placebo effect. One might say, they would see Jesus’ works as one long placebo story.
Yet, Jesus’ application of what he knew was certainly more consistent than modern day placebo research indicates is possible through simple mind-body manipulation.
Perhaps, key to his approach was not only the recognition of the importance of changing human thinking (one of the original meanings of “repent” is to “re-think”) but also his admonition to turn to the Divine. He spoke of the healing he produced as the result of his oneness with God and noted he could ‘of his own self do nothing.’
Perhaps we need to better understand the role spirituality, prayer and religious practices have on a person’s health – given the glimpses we have that it may be more than simple chemistry – even the sugar coated kind.
Wendy Margolese is a self-syndicated columnist and writes regularly on the relationship between thought, spirituality and health, and trends in that field. She is the media liaison for Christian Science in Ontario. Contact her at Ontario@compub.org. Follow on Twitter: @wmargolese