The Placebo Effect and the Engineering of Health

placebo_Since the year 2000, a time when prescription drug costs in the United States were recorded at $121.8 billion dollars, the annual increase in that number is estimated at approximately 15%, bringing that yearly value to somewhere near $400 billion by the year 2010.

The values talked about in the hotly debated healthcare reform discussion in the US are, quite frankly, inconceivable to the average person.  We’re talking about dollar amounts that would bankrupt most countries (and which may be threatening to do just that to the mighty US of A); a cost that puts a dire financial burden on the backs of all American’s, and in the name of what exactly?

There are those within and just on the fringe of the medical establishment of the modern world who are loudly touting the fallacy of the pharmaceutical empires of North America and Europe.  They argue, with a surprising amount of clarity and effectiveness against such a fiscally powerful entity, that the vast majority of modern pharmaceuticals are, for lack of a better term, entirely ineffective.  In other words, there are a growing number of medical scientists who believe that the projected multi-billion dollar annual cost of prescription drugs in the US is, well…for nothing.

How can that be?  Cancer medications, HIV and AIDS medications, diabetes medications, heart disease medications, and drugs that threat a host of other systemic, genetic and viral diseases and illnesses, all of which are the focus of much research and community fund raising, are actually less effective than a sugar pill.

I am of course talking about the placebo effect, crudely defined as the psychological effect of medical treatment, or the sense of benefit felt by a patient that arises solely from the knowledge that treatment has been given.  In this western society of hypochondriacally driven healthcare, a system which founds its philosophy of treatment on symptoms and ailments, rather than patients and causes, our medical science establishment is, as they have always been, focused on one thing only…financial gain based on the chemical manipulation of biological processes.

In a time when humanity knew less about the inner workings of the human body, than we did about the pharmacology of the world around us, doctors and scientists began to understand the subtle relationships between illness and ingested substance.  Through many years of trial and error research, a vast library of pharmacological knowledge led us into a position of medical complacency.  We as a society trust that the medical establishment has studied, tested and manufactured an effective defence against all that could possibly ail us.

But what if we were wrong in the first place?  The basic function of any pharmaceutical medication, is to manipulate and alter one or more chemical processes in the human body, and through that manipulation to alter the biological process that is causing the symptom of the ailment, and in turn, hopefully, correcting the ailment altogether.  There are a few unqualified assumptions that have long been forgotten when it comes to the function of these drugs however, not the least of which is the fact that within the human body, there are countless chemical interactions taking place at any given time, all of which are based on the combined relationships of only a few naturally occurring chemicals.  The addition, manipulation or alteration of any of those chemicals, for the purpose of treating an illness, can and does have catastrophic repercussions on other processes in the body, which rely on the same chemical process; hence, the vast array of medical side effects that plague western society today.

Here though, I will present to you a different idea of the science of side effects, wherein the placebo effect may be used as a much more active tool in the treatment of some common types of illnesses, to a much more drastic and even effective degree than anyone has previously discussed; the Engineering of the Placebo.

Since before the acceptance of Germ Theory, and prior to the late 19th century, medical minds have grown ever more aware of the interaction between environmental elements and disease, and it was this notion that spawned the very first chemical based pharmaceuticals known to man (not including old world homeopathic remedies).  That growth in knowledge was during a time of relative public ignorance toward hygiene, health and the impact of our environment on survival.  This was perhaps the best and only time that widespread pharmaceutical testing would be effective in the general populous, only due to the fact that those people partaking in drug testing were blissfully unaware of the potential impact of those drugs on their body, thus nullifying the potential for the placebo effect to impact the results of the drug being tested.

Unfortunately, as we now live in a world of instant connectivity, free flowing knowledge and financially motivated healthcare, the populous at large is much more aware of the intended effect of the drugs they ingest.  We are acutely attuned to the purpose of pharmaceuticals; we understand on a subconscious level, that by taking the blue pill we will experience a certain response, and by taking the red pill we will experience a different response.  We have been conditioned, in a disturbingly Pavlovian manner, to accept the grand knowledge and experience of the pharmaceutical empire, and to trust that they have our best interest at heart, and I’ll admit that the vast majority of those employed in the study of pharmaceuticals are doing so with at least some degree of humanitarian interest.

But here’s the “what if”…what if medical science has caught onto the fact that our collective expectation that the blue pill will solve our ills (and this is not a subtle endorsement of Viagra) is all we need to recover from even the most debilitating ailments.  What if they’ve caught on so well that they now engineer the most common drugs as a placebo with a kick?

There’s a duality to the placebo effect that makes it very difficult to work with and to predict.  If a person expects a certain drug to have a certain effect, in the vast majority of instances, it will have that effect in its use.  However, if that same person comes to believe that either the drug is ineffective or that the drug is not what it is purported to be, its efficacy will be drastically reduced.  And herein lays the modern medical problem.  How do you get a population of ever intelligent sick people, to accept that your drug is both completely effective and 100% genuine?  Simple really…you engineer side effects that make us believe its doing something it’s not.

Nearly all medical industry news pundits and journalists these days are elucidating the fact that the pharmaceutical giants in both North America and Europe are experiencing serious difficulty in bringing new drugs to market.  This is due to the relatively new Phase II placebo comparison testing that must be passed.  It surprises so many people to find out that so many new miracle drugs are scrapped before production because, through the Phase II testing, they are found to be no more effective than a placebo.

Are we to accept though, that these financial superpowers are content to just sit back and lose their market shares to the weirdly metaphysical properties of placebo conditioning?  One thing that the medical science establishment has been consistently successful with is the creation and propagation of some of the strangest and most frustrating side effects you can imagine; and I for one think that they have been putting that skill to use in some rather ingenious ways.

In much the same manner as our knowledge and conditioning has hampered their efforts to cure us of our many woes, I believe that they have capitalised on our expectation that any effective drug, comes with side effects.  It seems almost dastardly simple; manufacture pharmaceuticals that continue to be only as effective as their placebo counterparts, or simply dispense with the competition and sell the placebo, but in order to make it believable to the masses, build in some designer side effects, and no one will be the wiser.

In effect, this is a much better business model than producing working drugs anyway.  It creates a perpetual cycle of illness and wellness, ensuring that your product is in constant demand; it creates only discomfort by way of the side effects and thus keeps your customers believing in its effectiveness, all the while failing to ever address the medical issues at hand.

This of course is only a conspiratorial rant, filled with conjecture and establishment paranoia, but somewhere in there is a line of logic that permeates to the heart of the problem.  Faceless pharmaceutical giants continue to make hundreds of billions of dollars in the face of a growing medical epidemic, otherwise known as old age, and those at the helm of this out of control vessel seem to have at least some idea of where we’re actually headed.  Maybe it’s time we started to take a critical look at what we’re willing to believe, as a society, as a culture and as a people.  In the end, there’s an old journalists credo that comes to mind with this issue; whenever you’re stuck in your efforts to uncover a conspiracy, just follow the money.  Well, in this case, that money trails leads right to the offices of some of the wealthiest drug lords on the planet.

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