Thursday, August 9, 2012
The placebo effect and faith
A well known study in the late 1950s examined the placebo effect on angina pain. Half the participants had a heart bypass operation. The other half went through the motions of the operation without receiving any intervention. Pain reduction in both groups was equal. This sort of result has been demonstrated countless times with both medicines and surgery.
The placebo effect has significant influence on physiological change as well as perception of well-being. The more seriously medical the treatment, the more impact. Injections have a stronger placebo effect than pills. Doctors who look the part induce a stronger placebo effect than the more casually dressed. Even the beliefs of the doctor influence the impact. If the doctor believes that the prescribed treatment will be effective, then this somehow communicates itself and the treatment is more effective.
Whilst the medical profession recognises this effect, it does not find it easy to deal with. The ethics of treating people with placebos are rightly uncertain. Evidence based medicine seeks to improve on the accompanying placebo effect and add efficacy. This is the test that new medicines have to pass. They have to perform better than the sugar pills offered in randomised controlled trials. However, this issue is about more than evidence based pharmacology and surgery. This also impacts the 'art' of healing. If so much depends on the interaction between patient and doctor, how much role play is involved in stimulating maximal effect of treatment?
If doctors find this phenomenon difficult, then priests tend to ignore it completely. For their role in healing, they claim a more divine effect. If prayers are said and hands laid on, if oil anoints in a dramatic act of healing, then any improvements can be attributed to the Holy Spirit. No need to consider the intricacies of the body's natural responses. Few priests would wish to ask whether their clothing, tone of voice or bodily movements improve the effect of their prayers on people.
The downside to maintaining a singularly divine attribution is that there remains a mis-match between religion and medicine. If the doctor recognises the placebo effect and the priest proclaims divine intervention, then there is little common ground to explore between science and faith. There may actually be a lot in common in terms of the practice of healing, but too much mutual suspicion to create a common language.
Perhaps there are those who have worked explicitly on this issue? For the sake of the integration of the church's ministry of healing with medicine, this might well be a profitable dialogue.