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Business of Health Care: Placebo Effect As A Social Contagion

Michael Hagerty

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.

Kateleigh joined KWBU in January 2019. She is an Oklahoma native that is making the move to Waco after working as an All Things Considered host and producer at affiliate KOSU Radio in Oklahoma City. She is a former NPR Next Generation Radio Fellow, a Society of Professional Journalists award winner, an Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame recipient for ‘Outstanding Promise in Journalism’ and the Oklahoma Collegiate Media Association’s 2017 recipient for ‘College Newspaper Journalist of the Year.’ After finishing up her journalism degree early she decided to use her first year out of college to make the transition from print media to public radio. She is very excited to have joined KWBU and she is looking forward to all the opportunities it will bring - including providing quality journalism to all Texans.
Glenn Robinson has been the President of Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Hillcrest since September 2007. He previously held several CEO positions at hospitals in Texas, Oregon, and South Carolina. A Georgia native and graduate of the University of Alabama, Glenn completed graduate school at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.