A placebo for the pain: A medico-legal case analysis

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Abstract

Objectives. The objectives of this medico-legal case report are to consider the current status of the use of placebos in pain medicine from clinical, ethical, and legal perspectives. The focus of the analysis is a particular case in which the deceptive use of placebo pain therapy on an adolescent gave rise to professional grievances filed by the patient's mother against the physician who ordered and several nurses who administered the placebo. The medical board declined to take disciplinary action against the physician, and disciplinary action by the board of registered nursing against the nurses was successfully challenged by two of the charged nurses in an administrative review. While there is a growing literature that challenges the need for or justification of the deceptive use of placebos, the practice continues and, as the case under consideration indicates, retains some influential supporters. Design. This is a case report from a community hospital. The patient, referred to here as KC, was an adolescent with migraine headaches. The substitution of a placebo (saline solution) for an opioid analgesic (morphine) was made during KC's treatment. Results. The patient's pain subsided sufficiently following the administration of a placebo to permit his discharge from the hospital. The subsequent discovery by the patient's mother of the deceptive use of a placebo prompted her to file charges of professional misconduct against the treating physician and three nurses with their respective professional licensing boards. The medical board declined to take disciplinary action against the physician, and the disciplinary action by the board of registered nursing was successfully challenged in a ruling by an administrative law judge following a hearing in which expert witnesses took conflicting positions on the acceptability of the deceptive use of a placebo. Conclusion. While there is a developing literature that challenges the ethical legitimacy of the deceptive use of placebos in pain medicine, that literature has yet to be recognized as unqualifiedly setting the standard of care or of professionalism in medicine and nursing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)366-372
Number of pages7
JournalPain Medicine
Volume4
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - 2003

Keywords

  • Addiction
  • Ethics
  • Informed consent
  • Opioid analgesic
  • Pain medicine
  • Placebo

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology

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