We are continually hearing that Medicare is going to go bankrupt by mid-century thanks to the skyrocketing costs of an aging population in need of prescription drugs and dementia care.
Medicare Part D costs to the government in 2010 were $62 billion and are projected to climb to $150 billion by 2019. And Medicare costs for Alzheimer’s care will increase more than 600 percent, from $88 billion today to $627 billion in 2050.
Here is a double-barreled solution to the costs of Medicare Part D and Alzheimer’s care: replace prescription drugs with equally effective placebos and employ mildly-cognitively-impaired individuals as healthcare enhancement agents.
This is not a joke. Here is why this would work and save the federal government billions:
Placebos—if delivered properly—could potentially be more effective and considerably less costly than many current prescription drugs.
Here is an example of an experiment with placebos for a “purely physical ailment”:
One group was simply put on a waiting list; researchers know that some patients get better just because they sign up for a trial. Another group received placebo treatment from a clinician who declined to engage in small talk. Volunteers in the third group got the same sham treatment from a clinician who asked them questions about symptoms, outlined the causes of [their ailment], and displayed optimism about their condition.
Not surprisingly, the health of those in the third group improved most. In fact, just by participating in the trial, volunteers in this high-interaction group got as much relief as did people taking the two leading prescription drugs for IBS. And the benefits of their bogus treatment persisted for weeks afterward, contrary to the belief—widespread in the pharmaceutical industry—that the placebo response is short-lived.
It has been found that placebos can sometimes work even better than the leading prescription drug for any given disease, with certain factors contributing to their effectiveness:
Yellow pills make the most effective antidepressants, like little doses of pharmaceutical sunshine. Red pills can give you a more stimulating kick. Wake up, Neo. The color green reduces anxiety, adding more chill to the pill. White tablets—particularly those labeled “antacid”—are superior for soothing ulcers, even when they contain nothing but lactose. More is better, scientists say. Placebos taken four times a day deliver greater relief than those taken twice daily. Branding matters. Placebos stamped or packaged with widely recognized trademarks are more effective than “generic” placebos. Clever names can add a placebo boost to the physiological punch in real drugs. Viagra implies both vitality and an unstoppable Niagara of sexy.
If you’re thinking that the suggestion of using placebos is unethical, check out this study:
“Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle,” says Kaptchuk. “We told the patients that they didn’t have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills.”
The participants were monitored for three weeks and, at the end of the trial, 59% of the patients given the placebo reported ample symptom improvement as compared to 35% of the control group. Furthermore, participants who took the placebo had rates of improvement about equal to the effects of the most powerful IBS drugs.
Deception is unethical. Honesty is not. If there is a joke it’s in the current medical practice of prescribing expensive drugs that are sold without the most important ingredient that made them effective in the trials—the same ingredient that makes placebos effective.
As we would all imagine, the most important factor in the effectiveness of placebos is the doctor’s bedside manner. That is, the presence of compassion in the treatment of an ailment.
Regarding a Cognitively Impaired Workforce
The double-barreled solution in employing people with mild dementia as healthcare enhancement agents is that we would save on prescription drugs, hospital recovery times, and also be assigning purpose to people with mild cognitive impairment. Folks whose initial downward slope in the aging process is a bit early are not an “unproductive force in the economy.” There is richness of intellect, creativity, and compassion that could be tapped rather than stomped on per our current dementia stigmatization.
There was a time when people with physical disabilities couldn’t get jobs. But we’ve come a long way in learning of the tremendous contribution that the disabled can give, and have accommodated the workplace for such individuals with ramps and wider doorways and elevators in order to reap this benefit. Why not do the same for MCI individuals? Why are we instead discarding this tremendous resource?
In reading blogs of people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, one of the biggest stresses for both the sufferer and the government is issuance of social security disability benefits. Why not offer employment rather than cash benefits? If compassion at the bedside of a sick person dramatically speeds the healing process, think of the savings accrued by employing love & joy-givers in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes?
In his book The Gift of Pain, Dr. Brand lists the factors that enhance pain and prolong the healing process: fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, boredom, helplessness. He then describes how perfectly suited many institutions are in promoting these feelings with their sterile settings, uncommunicative doctors and nurses, boring surroundings (and now that nurses spend all their time at computer terminals per our new streamlining guidelines, these factors are further compounded). Healthcare institutions could cut their costs by employing people to:
Design and paint interesting scenes on hospital ceilings
Play instruments in institutional corridors (not just harps, please!)
Make dolls for nursing home patients
Read aloud to patients, or simply visit
Reupholster institutional furniture with fun fabrics
Take certified dogs into institutions for cheery visits
The savings in dollars would be compounded all around, and the savings in dignity for all healthcare users a welcome change for our society.