Can a physician be sued for prescribing a placebo?
I was discussing medical ethics questions with my girlfriend, who is well on her way to becoming a physician. She stumbled across this question posed to practicing PhD’s: “Would you ever prescribe a treatment that is a placebo, simply because the patient wanted treatment?” 24% of doctors said “Yes,” and 58% said “No.”
I saw three separate issues with this. First, you’d be lying to your patient. But the lying is, by definition, what gives a placebo its effectiveness. You wouldn’t be lying to cover up any inherent ethical flaws in yourself or your practice, but in order to treat the patient.
Second, prescribing a placebo in place of a much harsher chemical which may have unhealthy side effects is, medically speaking, much safer and in the better interest of the patient.
And third, much of the medical world today is driven by drug company profits. That is why the pharmaceutical companies are marketing directly to the patient, rather than just to the phsycian. The patient, of course, has little to no medical training or knowledge and may be prone to false hope and falling for the marketing ploys of the drug co’s. The doctor may not be able to convince the patient that the risks don’t necessarily outweigh the rewards and fear the patient going somewhere else to obtain the drug.
In discussing this, my girlfriend wondered aloud whether choosing to prescribe a placebo could feasibly get a physician into trouble. Assuming that the doctor didn’t withold treatment that could reasonably be expected to provide relief for a symptom, could a doctor be sued for this?