Placebo or Not, These Treatments Work

This post is part of our forum on David H. Freedman's July/August story, "The Triumph of New Age Medicine." Follow the debate here.

These comments seem to be mostly in agreement with my article. However, they muddy the water a bit with regard to the notion of people "dismissing these treatments as mere placebos." It's true that most critics of alternative medicine do exactly that. Proponents of alternative medicine, meanwhile, generally insist that alternative treatments have benefits well beyond that of the placebo effect. One of the points of my article is that there is an important middle ground here that is usually ignored. 

Fix or Fraud?

I contend, as do many highly credentialed mainstream physicians and researchers, that the core physical treatments of alternative medicine may do little more than deliver a placebo effect, but that this placebo effect can have a large positive impact on health. What's more, there is a lot more to alternative medicine than the delivery of these core treatments. The most important benefits probably come from the practitioner-patient interaction, which tends to make patients feel cared for and listened to, gets them to accept responsibility for their health and adopt healthier lifestyles, and helps them reduce stress and anxiety. 

These benefits have been well documented by mainstream research: lower risk of chronic, complex disease, and pain relief for a large variety of widespread disorders. In other words, this debate should not be about whether one does or doesn't believe the core treatments of alternative medicine rely heavily, or even solely, on the placebo effect. It should be about whether alternative medicine in some ways does a better job of delivering real wellness to patients than does mainstream medicine, not to mention at lower cost. 

I think it does, and a lot of highly regarded mainstream physicians agree with me. There are real difficulties to proving these sorts of interactions and benefits with conventional studies, and I hope NCCAM funding helps researchers overcome those obstacles and provide solid evidence about what sorts of benefits alternative medicine really does deliver, whether placebo-aided or not.

The debate continues here.

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David H. Freedman is the author of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them. He has been an Atlantic contributor since 1998.

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