Background: The efficacy of psychopharmacological treatments has been called into question. Psychiatrists are unfamiliar with the effectiveness of common medical drugs.
Aims: To put the efficacy of psychiatric drugs into the perspective of that of major medical drugs.
Method: We searched Medline and the Cochrane Library for systematic reviews on the efficacy of drugs compared with placebo for common medical and psychiatric disorders, and systematically presented the effect sizes for primary efficacy outcomes.
Results: We included 94 meta-analyses (48 drugs in 20 medical diseases, 16 drugs in 8 psychiatric disorders). There were some general medical drugs with clearly higher effect sizes than the psychotropic agents, but the psychiatric drugs were not generally less efficacious than other drugs.
Conclusions: Any comparison of different outcomes in different diseases can only serve the purpose of a qualitative perspective. The increment of improvement by drug over placebo must be viewed in the context of the disease's seriousness, suffering induced, natural course, duration, outcomes, adverse events and societal values.