Placebo. In medical school we learned to articulate that word with a faint smirk. Placebos were fake medicines, dispensed at times to assuage the complaints of patients who were ostensibly not very sick (the “worried well” we labeled them), who needed nothing more than a pseudopharmaceutical pat on the head. True, placebos can alleviate symptoms in up to about one-third of those suffering from any of a panoply of ailments, including severe pain. But we did not become physicians in order to traffic in phantoms, to exploit our patients’ gullibility. So we ignored the real significance of the placebo effect.
Wow, were we wrong! For the placebo effect represents the inherent strivings of human beings to heal themselves. It reveals our inherent inclination to mobilize our self-healing resources. Mainstream medicine for the most part does not try to mobilize these resources, for that is not its orientation. Instead it tries to oppose the signs and symptoms of disease with the force of chemicals and surgery and radiation. Such a treatment model can help to manage disease, but is far less likely to help people become truly well. Only treatments that strengthen the self-healing capacities of sick individuals can achieve that latter goal. As Albert Schweitzer said, “All healing is self-healing.”
So it is time that we accorded to the long-maligned placebo the respect it is due.