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In some cases, placebos were given to patients with conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome. Doctors also gave antibiotics to patients with viral bronchitis, knowing full well that a virus is impervious to antibiotics, which fight bacteria. Experts believe overuse of antibiotics promotes the development of drug-resistant strains of bacteria.
Some doctors believe placebos are a good treatment in certain situations, as long as patients are told what they are being given. Dr. Walter Brown, a professor of psychiatry at Brown and Tufts universities, said people with insomnia, depression or high blood pressure often respond well to placebo treatments.
"You could tell those patients that this is something that doesn't have any medicine in it but has been shown to work in people with your condition," he suggested.
However, experts don't know if the placebo effect would be undermined if patients were explicitly told they were getting a dummy pill.
Brown said that while he hasn't prescribed sugar pills, he has given people with anxiety problems pills that had extremely low doses of medication. "The dose was so low that whatever effect the patients were getting was probably a placebo effect," he said.
Kirsch, the psychologist, said it might be possible to get the psychological impact without using a fake pill. "If doctors just spent more time with their patients so they felt more reassured, that might help," he said.
Some patients who had just seen their doctors at a clinic in London said the truth was paramount.
"I would feel very cheated if I was given a placebo," said Ruth Schachter, an 86-year-old Londoner with skin cancer. "I like to have my eyes wide open, even if it's bad news," she said. "If I'm given something without being warned what it is, I certainly would not trust the doctor again."
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