Science and Belief in Medicine

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How belief in medicine can affect results. This woman ponders it.
(Pixabay)

Mainstream modern medicine is based on the concept of proving what works and testing to make sure it’s safe. That’s a science. But then there’s the concept of the power of belief in medicine, which can help explain the placebo effect. Let’s look more at these concepts of science and belief in medicine.

The science part makes a lot of sense; you want to know that the medical treatment you’re receiving will help you, and not cause you serious harm. Sometimes it’s a balancing act; many medicines have side effects that can range from inconvenient to life-threatening, but the benefit they provide outweighs the possible risks. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are treatments used to treat that most feared of all diseases: cancer. But in the process of killing the cancer cells, the rest of the body is affected too, making cancer treatment a tortuous process for many people.

However, because the alternative is so much worse, doctors still use these treatments when there is no other option, and patients still submit to the suffering involved in the hope they will stay alive. It’s perhaps not surprising then that alternative treatments are still so popular, even when there is little evidence to support their efficacy.

Why do people choose to reject conventional medicine?

There are many reasons why patients turn to alternative treatments. It could be because they aren’t feeling any benefit from the mainstream treatment they’ve been receiving. Perhaps because they’ve been told there’s little else that can be done for them, or they don’t feel their symptoms have been accurately diagnosed. Or they may have heard or read about the experiences of other sufferers who have improved under an alternative regime.

Alternatives have their own appeal too because they are generally far less unpleasant for the patient, and don’t have the side effects that conventional medicine can have. The question is if there is little supporting evidence that these treatments work, how do people who use them and reject conventional treatments sometimes make seemingly miraculous recoveries?

The placebo effect

You may be smiling to yourself now, thinking you know the answer to this question – it’s the placebo effect, right? A patient has the belief in medicine or the conviction that a treatment will work, so it does! It sounds simple and logical and has been tested over many decades in clinical trials that prove there is such an effect. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The gold standard for clinical trials in medicine is the double-blinded study. In basic terms, it means that the study group is divided into equal numbers, one or two groups are given the treatment under review, the other group is given a placebo – a sugar pill or the equivalent, that has no active ingredients in it. In a double-blind, neither the test subjects nor whoever is administering the treatment knows who is getting which of the options. Therefore, any effects of foreknowledge about the treatment are eliminated. In theory, this means that the results of the treatment in the recipient groups can be compared fairly against the group that has not received the treatment.

… and beyond

So far, so good. Double-blinding takes care of any bias, or beliefs about the treatment that could affect the results, meaning that if the treatment under study produces a significant effect in the subjects receiving it, you have proof that the treatment works – or at least, you have another piece of evidence to support the science. What’s interesting is that the placebo group nearly always shows improvement too, even though they have had no treatment.

This is where the placebo effect is shown time and time again to make a difference. Patients who receive no treatment but believe they might be getting a new drug that could help them show improvement in their condition. It is this effect that is credited with achieving the results witnessed in the use of alternative treatments. Not that the treatments themselves are working, but that because the patient believes they will work, they get better. The fascinating question is, what is going on in the brain to cause this outcome?

The brain is mysterious, as shown by the power of belief in medicine
(Unsplash)

The mysteries of the human brain

We know an awful lot more about the human brain than we did just a few years ago; but neurologists will tell you that for the most part, we still know comparatively little. People often speak about the power of the mind, the force of human will, the strength that comes from belief in medicine. But what does it all mean? What is going on in your gray matter that can wield such power? Is it a complex biochemical process we don’t yet understand? Is it the work of a higher power? Or could it be that there is more to the brain than we realize and that just because we have virtually no credible evidence for extrasensory perception and other psychic powers, they do exist?

The truth is, nobody knows for sure. Skeptics will say there is nothing beyond science. In other words, brains are organs that operate within the known laws of physics, and anything else is just hogwash. Those with religious beliefs say this is proof of the existence of a divine being, and that miracle recoveries are a demonstration of their superiority. Then there are those who believe there must be more to alternative medicine than placebo; it simply isn’t proven yet.

Belief in medicine: How it affects everyday life

Ask yourself the following question. When you go to the drugstore and see a branded painkiller next to the generic, unbranded version, which one do you choose? Do you believe that the branded one is better because it says so in the adverts? Plus, it costs more, so it must be better, right?

Have a look at the ingredients. You’ll see that a standard painkiller has exactly the same active ingredient, no matter what the packaging. That’s true of all drugs – take a look at eDrugSearch to find out more about the drugs behind the brand names, and you’ll see. Nevertheless, even when presented with this evidence, many people still say the branded version works better for them. There is no scientific reason why this should be so; but because they believe it, it works.

The challenge for science and medical research is to find out how this belief system works. Also, why it has such a notable effect on so many people? Then we could all benefit from the power of belief.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Like a paradoxical twist on Mulder’s “I want to believe” in modern-day medicine. But I get so frustrated with doctors/medical staff and how they treat (or not treat) their patients.

  2. What an insightful piece. I work in healthcare (payer contracting), so I’ve learned about modern medicine and how things have changed over the last 5-6 years. Doctors are pushed to their limits, they only have a certain amount of time to see every patient, and I know quality of care has been affected. I’ve experienced that with my own doctors. I’m skeptical of certain medicines, especially with their side effects. When I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in the summer of 2015, I was offered medication. I thought about it, but ended up declining. I was given many tools and mechanisms to cope with my anxiety without medication, and thankfully, it’s worked. There are people I know that rely on medicine to accomplish what they accomplish in their daily lives, so I’m not knocking that at all. I’m just very skeptical, and more than willing to get multiple opinions, too.

  3. Sometimes I think the Placebo effect works simply because the body is always trying to heal itself anyway.

    I’ve read that doctors are 5 times more likely than the average person to use generic drugs than more expensive drugs.

    I also read an article by a doctor about how he and his colleagues are far less likely to put themselves under extreme cancer treatments than give them to patients. With patients, they feel obligated to do everything they can to save a life, but for themselves, after a certain point they realize they are going to die anyway so they’d rather do it peacefully and at home.

  4. If the placebo effect is the only explanation that scientists can come up with for alternative methods working then the same could be said about conventional medicine.
    I don’t believe science can prove everything. We will never know all the mysteries of the universe nor should we.

  5. I believe firmly that hope and faith can impact a patient, perhaps not in quite the same way as scientifically proven treatments, but that belief does play a part in the healing. There are patients who have given up hope of survival, or the will to live, who will not respond to treatment. On the other hand, sometimes patients who are not expected to survive beat the odds, because of their faith in medicine, their family, God, or whatever reason. Obviously faith doesn’t heal all the time, but I believe its effects cannot be ruled out.

  6. Thank you, Christy, for sharing the post. In my previous career, I managed the submission of applications to get pharmaceutical drugs approved. Clinical trials are conducted to demonstrate whether the benefits of a drug outweighs its safety concerns. Many of the regulations came into place to avoid catastrophes like thalidomide that was given for morning sickness in the 1960’s, but caused horrific birth defects. People may react differently to drugs and should be treated accordingly. Factors such as age, gender, and drug interactions can impact how the drug is released and its safety profile. Don’t assume generics are absolutely equivalent to brands. Generics may have different formulations and release the active drug differently than brands, causing tolerance issues in some patients. Thus, everyone should educate themselves about drugs they are taking and ask their health professional lots of questions to make sure they understand what to expect from treatment.

    Modern medicine treats symptoms of diseases, but does not necessarily address the underlying causes of diseases. A contribution to disease might be underlying stress that a person is experiencing. The power of the mind and spirituality in the healing process cannot be ruled out. Alternative medical practices such as massage, acupuncture, meditation, and chiropractic care can also be useful in overall health. I’ve personally witnessed miracles that can’t be explained scientifically, so I keep an open mind about my options.

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