Is it ever ethical to provide a placebo treatment? What about when that placebo is homeopathy? Last month at Science-Based Medicine I blogged about the frequency of placebo prescribing by physicians. I admitted my personal discomfort, stating I’d refuse to dispense any prescription that would require me to deceive the patient. The discussion continued in the comments, where opinions seemed to range from (I’m paraphrasing) “autonomy, shmatonomy, placebos works” to the more critical who likened placebo use to “treating adults like children.” My SBM co-blogger Harriet Hall noted, “We should have rules but we should be willing to break them when it would be kinder to the patient, and would do no harm.” And on reflection, Harriet’s perspective was one that I could see myself accepting should I be in a situation like the one she described. It’s far easier to be dogmatic when you don’t have a patient standing in front of you. But the comments led me to consider possible situations where a placebo might actually be the most desirable treatment option. If I find some, should I be as dogmatic about homeopathy as I am about other placebos?
Nicely, Kevin Smith, writing in the journal Bioethics, examines the ethics of placebos, based on an analysis of homeopathy. Homeopathy is the ultimate placebo in routine use — most remedies contain only sugar and water, lacking a single molecule of any potentially medicinal ingredient. Smith’s paper, Against Homeopathy — A Utilitarian Perspective, is sadly behind a paywall. So I’ll try to summarize his analysis, and add my perspective as a health care worker who regularly encounters homeopathy.