Washington, Mar 5 : A provocative study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that a cheaper pill will not be as effective as a costlier pill, even if they are similar placebos.
According to the study, conducted by Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist at Duke University, a 10-cent pill doesn't kill pain as well as a 2.50 dollars identical pill.
"Physicians want to think it's the medicine and not their enthusiasm about a particular drug that makes a drug more therapeutically effective, but now we really have to worry about the nuances of interaction between patients and physicians," said Ariely.
The researchers used a standard protocol to administer light electric shock to 82 participants' wrists, in order to measure their subjective rating of pain, testing them before getting the placebo and after.
Around 50pct of the participants were given a brochure describing the pill as a newly-approved pain-killer costing 2.50 dollars per dose and 50pct were given a brochure describing it as marked down to 10 cents, without saying why.
85 pct of subjects experienced a reduction in pain after taking the placebo in the full-price group, whereas in the low-price group, 61pct said the pain was less. And this finding, from a relatively small and simplified experiment, points to a host of larger questions according to Ariely,
He said that the findings correlate with existing data about how people perceive quality and how they anticipate therapeutic effects. But interestingly, the combination of the price-sensitive consumer expectation with the well-known placebo effect of being told a pill works.
"The placebo effect is one of the most fascinating, least harnessed forces in the universe," said Ariely.
He wonders if prescription medications should offer cues from packaging, rather than coming in indistinguishable brown bottles.
"And how do we give people cheaper medication, or a generic, without them thinking it won't work"" he asked.
He said that at the very least, doctors should be able to use their enthusiasm for a medication as part of the therapy, saying: "They have a huge potential to use these quality cues to be more effective."
The findings of this study appear as a letter in the latest edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.