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Business of Health Care: Placebo Effect As A Social Contagion


The so-called placebo effect has long triggered interest in the medical community. A placebo is a substance or therapy that has no medical benefit but the patient receiving it thinks that it does. The placebo effect occurs when the patient receiving this fake treatment experiences a beneficial response that is real.

A recent study has added a new angle to this phenomenon by suggesting that the placebo effect also may be socially contagious. Specifically, the study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, examined how doctors’ belief about the effects of a medication affect their patients’ experience of pain.

The experiment involved college students playing the roles of doctors and patients, and two creams. One cream was supposedly a pain reliever, while the other was a placebo. Only the student playing the role of doctor knew which one was the pain reliever. However, in actuality, both creams were placebos.

Pain-inducing heat and the creams were then applied to each patient’s arm. Cameras recorded the doctor-patient interactions and the subtle changes in the interaction when the doctor believed they were administering the “real” pain reliever.

The results found that when the doctors believed they were giving the pain-relieving cream, patients reported feeling less pain.

These initial findings seem to indicate that it’s not only what the doctor prescribes the patient, but how doctors and patients interact, that impact clinical outcomes. And that would add a whole new dimension to the doctor-patient relationship.