In my Law, Literature and Medicine class
, the poem "Gaudeamus Igitur"
by John Stone
-- eminent cardiologist and medical educator and poet-essayist par excellence -- is always a hit (you can listen to an NPR story
that includes a snippet of the poem). It was written as a graduation valedictory at the Emory University School of Medicine
, and it provides a wonderful review of the medical school years, as well as the exhilaration and nervousness that mark the passage from medical student to medical intern. (That would be a tall enough task, but Stone makes it even harder on himself by using as his template for the poem Christopher Smart's bizarre and wonderful celebration of his cat, Jeoffry, in "Jubilate Agno."
) One of the class's favorite couplets is this:
For the placebo will work and you will think you know why
For the placebo will have side effects and you will know you
do not know why
The "placebo effect" has been much discussed in the medical literature (abstract
), including the ethics of misleading patients into believing that they are receiving a medicine with active ingredients when they are, in fact, receiving a placebo. (There has also been a lively debate on the ethics of sham, or placebo, surgery.) The consensus seems to be that there is a placebo effect when the condition is mediated by the brain -- pain being the best example -- and the placebo has never been established when the condition involves a physical abnormality, such as a tumor. And in the realm of pain control, there seems to be a split between practitioners' beliefs and actions on the one hand (many seem to think prescribing a placebo is a good thing) and the ethics literature on the other.
All of this came back to me while reading a story in Wednesday's New York Times
about a study published in this week's JAMA (extract
only) in which researchers showed that more expensive placebos produced better results than cheaper ones. The really interesting part of this story isn't what it tells us about the psychopharmacokinetic (if there is such a word) effect of placebos. Of even greater interest is this: "The finding may explain the popularity of some high-cost drugs over cheaper alternatives, the authors conclude. It may also help account for patients’ reports that generic drugs are less effective than brand-name ones, though their active ingredients are identical."