An article in the September 3-9, 2018 issue of Time magazine, “Placebo’s New Power,” describes instances of people knowingly taking placebos and getting relief. These “honest placebos” were administered in a study of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients. One patient, whose IBS symptoms improved dramatically during the study, later found her symptoms recurred. She decided to continue the placebo treatments at the researcher’s private clinic and achieved remission again.
Overall, results were so encouraging in this Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center study that the National Institute of Health has awarded the research team a $2.5 million grant to replicate the study.
Placebos have been around since time immemorial, used to advantage in numerous conditions. Their use is predicated on the belief that a patient’s faith in the treatment has a healing effect. Formal pharmaceutical studies in Western medicine measure a presumed new drug’s effects against placebo to determine whether it will work on a large scale. In Western medicine, generally, the “placebo effect” is disparaged, as though there is something “un-scientific” about it.
The Time article speculates about why people who know they are taking fake pills get better. It notes patients appreciate doctors who validate their suffering. They fare better with doctors they perceive as warm and competent. We are told that confidence in “medical industry leaders” in the US has plunged to 34%, from 73% in 1966.
To me, this is another example of Western medicine taking credit for applying common sense. Not once does the article mention such old-fashioned terms as “bedside manner,” which cannot be measured or billed for in the codified, prioritized list of “evidence-based” protocols that wants to squeeze patients into convenient, binary-based boxes.
In Western medicine, the patient is seen as a relatively passive recipient of medical care. The doctor, treatments, and pills act upon the patient, with the external agent believed to effect the healing.
In contrast, Oriental medicine perceives the body is its own healing agent, with its own homeostatic wisdom, presumed to want healing, with the practitioner a partner and participant in the process. Belief in the treatment, and in the practitioner’s competence, are valuable and acknowledged aids in the healing process. Far from being “placebo,” the partnership between patient and clinician becomes an integral component of the treatment goal.
A fundamental difference between Oriental and Western medicine involves “qi,” (also spelled “chi”) or “life force.” In Oriental philosophy and medicine, “qi” pervades all things, and is crucial to life. When the body’s “qi” is depleted, restricted, or out of balance, it leads to trouble. Disharmonies begin on a spiritual level, then become increasingly “dense,” manifesting as intellectual, emotional, and finally physical levels. Practices like acupuncture rely on stimulating or balancing qi along specific energy channels called “meridians.”
There’s a mistaken belief in the West that we know more than we do about the body. While we point to specific brain chemicals, such as neurotransmitters serotonin or acetylcholine, these are only two of perhaps thousands of brain messengers that interact in a constant dynamic. The brain is only one organ in an equally complex body, with signals going back and forth at lightning-fast speed. Western science presumes the body is like a machine, but the mechanical construct of Western medicine gives no credit to life.
For me to say Western medicine is backwards, that the practice of dehumanizing patients under mechanical models works against health, may sound extreme. Certainly the most expensive “health care industry” in the world deserves more respect, more funding, and more of our life blood. But I suspect the opposite, that the commercialization and institutionalization of the “health care industry” has devitalized the system in the name of high-tech, low-yield placebos that only help if you believe they work, and often not even then.