You may have heard of cases in which a patient who (wrongly) thinks he’s being treated for a condition actually gets better. Medical history is full of extraordinary cases in which patients have recovered from severe conditions through only the power of hope, expectation, and suggestion. But even in ordinary cases, patients and doctors alike are unconsciously affected by their expectations. We call this “the placebo effect.”
For most of history, this has made it hard to determine which treatments were actually helpful. Many traditional remedies have sometimes been effective because they were believed to be effective. Before we had scientific medical research, we could only trust stories and theories. Now that we know how to get at the truth through the scientific method, we still use the placebo effect, but we use it to make our research as precise as possible.
Experiment, Variable, and Control
Just because a medicine really works doesn’t mean you aren’t experiencing a placebo effect. Any perception that you’re getting treatment has the potential to alter the way your mind and body responds to illness.
“Placebo” is a Latin word meaning “I will please.” The idea that we’re taking steps to improve our health is pleasing to us. Eating healthier food will help us feel healthier; taking an aspirin might make it easier to ignore a headache, even before the aspirin kicks in. On the other end, we also want to please others, including our doctors. Many patients who start new treatments will emphasize their improvement to their doctors rather than disappointing them.
This can be a problem for clinical researchers. Researchers only want to test one variable in their experiment—whether a certain medication is better than nothing. But there are many variables that affect your health. The way your doctor treats you, the length of time you spend talking to your doctor, and even the size and color of the pills you take can affect the way you respond to treatment.
To get around this problem, researchers set up a “control” experiment. This is the same as the main experiment, with the only change being the experimental variable. This means that subjects in the control and experimental groups need to experience the same degree of placebo effect.
Typically, both groups are given a drug that they have been informed may or may not be real. This ensures that nobody is lied to, and also decreases the patient’s expectation of recovery, minimizing the placebo effect. The less pronounced the placebo effect, the easier it is to gauge the effectiveness of a treatment. In most placebo-controlled trials, the doctors also don’t know whether a patient is receiving treatment or a placebo. This way, the doctors will treat both groups of patients the same way until the study is finished.
Researchers are constantly trying to find a way to make medical research as precise as possible. If you want to help, call (401) 305-5200 to find out whether you qualify for a Lincoln Research study.