More than three-quarters of doctors in a British study prescribe a treatment they know probably won't work at least once a week, like low-dose drugs, vitamins, nutritional supplements or an unnecessary examination, according to a new survey.
This use of placebo treatments contradicts advice from the British Medical Association, which deems them unethical.
The researchers say the findings reveal a common practice among doctors and should be used to change official guidance about using placebos. The surveyed doctors said they prescribed them to reassure patients or because patients pushed for a treatment.
"For authorities to put their heads in the sand and pretend [placebo treatments] are not being given out is not helpful," said Jeremy Howick of Oxford University, one of the authors of the study, which was published in the journal PLoS One this week.
Howick and colleagues used a web-based survey and got 783 responses. The sample was drawn from a list that included 71 per cent of all doctors registered with the General Medical Council, the governing body for doctors in Britain.
The survey asked doctors if they had ever used a placebo, like a sugar pill or a drug not meant for the patient's condition or a non-essential examination including blood tests and x-rays. Nearly all doctors - 97 per cent - reported having used some kind of placebo treatment at least once, while 12 per cent reported having used a fake pill.
About 77 per cent of doctors said they used some kind of placebo treatment every week.