The placebo effect, that describes the improvement in health (physical or psychological) of patients due to the fact that those patients believe they received medical treatment rather than the effects of actual treatment, has been receiving attention from both medical and psychology investigators. It’s an effect that it’s due to the expectations of the patient, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: I believe that this drug will effectively cure my headache, and my expectation of it enhances the drug effect (if it’s a real drug) or makes it work (in the placebo case).
Deciding how best to use this effect is a subject of great controversy as some, not without a point, deem unethical to pretend to give treatment to a patient and deceive him. On the other hand, its true that the placebo effect works and could be a more economical treatment and, more importantly, one who carries less side-effects to the patient in some cases.
Ethics apart, Olivia Judson wrote a great piece on the placebo effect at the NY Times at the beginning of the month that is worth reading. Here’s an excerpt:
Expectations around medical rituals may also explain why placebos tend to be more powerful if the pills are expensive or you take them several times a day; why injections and exotic machines are more powerful than pills; and why surgery is more powerful than injections. (…) However, the most reliable source of a strong placebo effect appears to be: the doctor.
Full article here.