“Placebos have much stronger and more complex effects than we used to think. Their use is extremely important in medicine,” said Christoph Fuchs, managing director of the association, adding that pills and injections without active ingredients can be enormously beneficial to patients.
The author of the study, Robert Jütte, said about one in two doctors in Germany prescribes placebos on occasion. In Bavaria, a study found that 88 percent of general practitioners prescribe inactive drugs.
Often, doctors prescribe vitamin pills or homeopathic remedies that contain none of the medicine generally used to treat a specific illness. Some physicians even have agreements with nearby pharmacies who give patients sugar pills when filling prescriptions.
While it is still not completely understood how placebos function, researchers hypothesize that they work by activating the brain's frontal lobe.
According to Jütte, what might appear as ethically dubious is actually often in the best interest of the patient. One study in Germany found that placebos helped 59 percent of patients with stomach ailments. With depression, placebos have the same effect as anti-depressants in about one-third of cases. In addition, placebos also carry none of the side-effects that genuine medicines often do.
“Using placebos often maximizes the desired medicinal effect, reduces unwelcome side-effects and cuts health care costs,” Jütte said.
The medical association added that doctors should only prescribe placebos under certain conditions, for example if there is no approved pharmaceutical therapy available, if the patient only has a minor illness or condition and if it appears likely that a placebo treatment will be successful.