Why do ineffective treatments seem helpful? A brief review

Chiropr Osteopat. 2009 Oct 12;17:10. doi: 10.1186/1746-1340-17-10.


After any therapy, when symptoms improve, healthcare providers (and patients) are tempted to award credit to treatment. Over time, a particular treatment can seem so undeniably helpful that scientific verification of efficacy is judged an inconvenient waste of time and resources. Unfortunately, practitioners' accumulated, day-to-day, informal impressions of diagnostic reliability and clinical efficacy are of limited value. To help clarify why even treatments entirely lacking in direct effect can seem helpful, I will explain why real signs and symptoms often improve, independent of treatment. Then, I will detail quirks of human perception, interpretation, and memory that often make symptoms seem improved, when they are not. I conclude that healthcare will grow to full potential only when judgments of clinical efficacy routinely are based in properly scientific, placebo-controlled, outcome analysis.