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Placebo Therapy and Malpractice

Placebo Therapy and Malpractice


A “placebo” is any intentionally ineffective medical treatment used to replace medication. For centuries, medical research has used placebo therapy to study the effectiveness of medical treatments. In addition, since the beginning of time, physicians have prescribed placebos such as sugar pills for the nonspecific psychological or physiologic effects they have on patients. The placebo effect is the term used to describe the effect produced by placebos.



What happens when a patient finds out that a doctor has prescribed a placebo to treat a patient’s symptoms? Can a patient sue a physician for malpractice if the physician prescribed a placebo when a real drug was warranted? What about the deception that is necessary to effectively use placebo therapy? Can physicians be held liable for deceiving their patients into believing that they were dependent on a drug when, in fact, the drug was merely a placebo?



Because patients often never learn that they were taking a placebo, malpractice lawsuits for the negligent prescription of placebo therapy are rare. Some courts have, however, found physicians liable in cases alleging negligent placebo therapy. In one such case, a physician was found liable for continuing to describe a placebo for a patient suffering from depression. The patient took a placebo drug to treat his depression for a number of years. During that time period, the patient’s depression deepened. He ultimately committed suicide. In his family’s lawsuit against the physician, the family alleged that the physician was negligent in failing to recognize that the patient required a real anti-depressant. The jury agreed with the family and entered a verdict against the physician.



Other malpractice claims against physicians who prescribe placebo therapy have alleged that the physician was negligent in failing to obtain the patient’s informed consent to prescribing a placebo drug. As knowledge that a drug is a placebo will greatly lessen the effect of the placebo treatment, such claims have rarely been successful against physicians. Nevertheless, some physicians have begun obtaining informed consent prior to using placebo therapy in order to avoid malpractice liability.



To succeed in a case alleging improper treatment with placebos, a plaintiff would have to prove that the physician deviated from the standard of care required of the physician and that the deviation was the cause of injury to the patient. Proving injury in placebo cases can be problematic because the plaintiff often has to prove that the outcome with the placebo was worse than it would have been had an actual drug been used. Because this proof is based mainly on speculation, it is difficult for a plaintiff to meet his or her burden of proof on the causation issue.

Copyright 2011 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.


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