Can a doctor trick a patient . . . ethically?

March 21, 2011

Or, is it a fake treatment, if it is effective? 

Slate magazine has a facinating article about the use of placebos in medicine as a valid treatment of symptoms.  The use of placebos is prohibited by the American Medical Association, but only if the patient doesn’t consent.  Pediatrician Adrian Sandler, in treating children with ADHD, found away around this by giving half of the normal dose of the standard drug along with the placebo, and advising the patients and their parents that this regimine “had the potential” to control their symptoms. 

He tested the idea in 99 children, randomly assigned to one of three treatments. The first group continued to take their regular dose of medication, another took half their optimal dose, and the third was instructed to take a half dose of their meds plus a placebo pill that was described as a “dose extender.” Before the study began, researchers explained to the parents and the kids, aged 6 to 12, that the dose extender contained no active ingredient. After eight weeks, the symptoms of ADHD had grown more severe in kids who took only a half dose, but they remained stable in the groups that received either the full dose or the half dose plus placebo.

In medicine, it is crucial to have a patient’s informed consent to any treatment.  Here, the doctor got the consent, but the way that he framed it was designed to ilicite a particular response from the patient.  The question remains whether the fact that this treatment appears to work outweighs the potential deception that goes along with it.

View Our Blog


Maucere Law Group LLC’s International Business Law Blog. Focusing on legal issues affecting U.S. and global businesses, cross-border transactions, and dispute resolution.

View the blog