Sunday, February 9, 2014

Something Better Than the Best

She had a fourteen hour flight to Australia, explained a woman with a thick French accent. Unfortunately, she had thrown her back out again. Would I come and give something to relax her muscles for that long journey?

I don’t know any medicine that does that, but if knew what her French doctor used, I might have no objection. I suspected she didn’t know the name, and she didn’t, but she was certain that, in the past, he had prescribed something that did the trick. 

She was already taking the usual pain remedies, so there was no point in a housecall. The woman agreed, but she was clearly disappointed. I know she wondered if I was truly on the ball.

It’s a popular medical belief (remember reader: all popular medical beliefs are wrong) that if you are sick, the doctor will do his best. But if you absolutely must feel well – you have a vacation, important business, a wedding – a smart physician will make a special effort and come up with something even better.   

As a hotel doctor, I deal with this yearning all the time. Since doctors are tenderhearted, it’s tempting to prescribe a placebo if no useful medicine exists. Placebos work although not as dramatically as enthusiasts claim.

The problem is that they’re not available. Decades ago, drug companies sold pills labeled “placebo,” but, perhaps for medicolegal reasons, they stopped. The result is that when a doctor decides you need a placebo, he prescribes a real medicine in the full knowledge that he’s doing something wrong. As I’ve written repeatedly, the advantage of alternative, folk, holistic, and herbal healing is that their medicines are harmless. Our medicines have side-effects, so we’re not supposed to prescribe them unless they’ll help.

Life is easier for doctors who ignore this, so many do. I don’t, but if I decide that someone needs a placebo and then don’t give one, the patient often feels that I’ve missed the boat.

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