Healthcare News & Insights

Uh-oh! Placebos more effective than new drugs


The placebo effect is getting stronger. It’s a potential boon for patients and doctors, but a huge headache for pharmaceutical companies.

A look at clinical trials for new medications shows a stunning trend: The placebo effect, in which patients get benefits from inert medications, is getting more powerful. And that’s a threat to big pharma, since it makes it that much harder to show that a prospective new drug undergoing trials can overcome the placebo effect by a wide enough margin to make it worthwhile.

Just why the placebo effect is getting more powerful is up for debate. One theory is that the immense amount of  advertising and marketing done by pharmaceutical companies is increasing patients’ overall faith in the power of popping a pill.

There are more scientific reasons as well: Many clinical trials have moved overseas where the belief in the ability of modern medicine to cure a particular illness may be even higher. And companies often have to include patients with milder forms of a given disease — which means those patients are also more likely to respond to a placebo treatment.

Even as pharma companies work to overcome the placebo effect, they’re learning things that can help make “real” medications more effective. For example, researchers have discovered that the color of a pill can enhance the placebo effect — red pills are seen as stimulating, while yellow pills are particularly good at helping mood disorders. Applying those colors to legit medications has enhanced their effectiveness as well.

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