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West J Med. Feb 1999; 170(2): 93–96.
PMCID: PMC1305448

Placebo medication use in patient care: a survey of medical interns.


The use of placebo medication, long recognized by clinicians, often has serious practical implications, such as patient deception. Past evidence has suggested that resident physicians tend to misuse placebo medication. Interns from two consecutive years of a residency program were surveyed anonymously to assess their knowledge and use of placebos. Of the 74 interns surveyed, 44 (59%) were familiar with placebo use in patient care. Fifty percent of these interns familiar with placebo use had learned about placebos from another physician. All interns who had learned about placebos during their internships had learned from another physician, whereas interns who had gained their knowledge of placebos as medical students were as likely to have learned from the medical literature as they were to have learned from a physician (P = 0.027). Interns aware of placebo use were more likely to consider placebo administration for suspected, factitious pain (P = 0.022). The present study uncovered no relationship between interns' estimations of placebo efficacy and the utility they attributed to placebos in assessing a complaint of pain. This suggests that conceptual inconsistencies underlie their use of placebos. Interns often learn of placebos as medical students and are influenced by physician-mentors. Placebo use in patient care is an area of attention for medical educators.

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Selected References

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