When we pick up a prescription or over-the-counter medication, most of us feel it will simply be effective or not based on its medicinal ingredients and how they have been shown to work on the condition we’re trying to treat.
In general, this assumption is true.
This is why we have such a rigorous system in place surrounding clinical trials for all medical treatments—to ensure they are medically effective and so that consumers know what they’re getting when they choose a particular product.
However, as I have discussed in several other columns over the years, the placebo effect can have a real and measurable impact on the perceived effectiveness of any medical treatment.
When we feel as though a medicine is going to work, we tend to feel better while taking it —and clinical trials repeatedly find this is true even when we take a fake or inactive medicine.
When a trusted doctor or pharmacist tells us the medicine will work, we also tend to feel better after taking it.
When it comes to the placebo effect, there are many ways in which our body begins the process of feeling better simply based on the perception of treatment.
It’s a phenomenon that has baffled scientists for many years and has become a very important factor when we do conduct studies on new treatments—ensuring positive effects are indeed from the medicine and not simply placebo.
A recent survey out of the University of Bombay in Mumbai, India, has shown a few more factors that can affect our perception of any given medication and consequently our choice of which ones to take.
According to their data, the colour, shape, taste and even the name of a pill can affect how we feel about our medication.
In this study, published in the International Journal of Biotechnology, 600 people were surveyed about over the counter medication and how much these factors influence choice.
Three quarters of participants said the colour and shape of pills act as reminders for complying to treatment. Red and pink were preferred over other colours.
Pink pills were thought to taste sweeter than red ones, yellow pills were perceived as salty, white or blue were more often thought to be bitter and orange pills were perceived as sour regardless of actual ingredients.
It’s not surprising to learn that our sensory and aesthetic biases play a role in the medicines we choose over the counter.
Most people prefer one brand of pain killer over another—often due to the texture or feel of the pill or the packaging.
Our perceptions can also powerfully affect our view of the treatment’s effectiveness.
A good combination of shape, texture and colour gives any medication a boost by improving outcome and even reducing side effects
Researchers in this study suggested drug manufacturers should ensure sensory elements of a medication work together to create positive perceptions that can complement medical attributes.
Although they seemed to feel that little attention has been paid to this aspect of pharmaceutical formulation, I think it’s already happening at the very least in the realm of the highly competitive over-the-counter market.
Although positive placebo effects can be helpful, they are usually short-lived when a patient is experiencing a chronic, serious illness.
For example, those taking placebos in depression studies may experience a short improvement in their symptoms, but will probably experience another depressive episode if they are not on an effective medication.
So even though a complementary relationship may be developed between sensory and medical components of a treatment, the non-medical aspect should definitely take a back seat in importance.
Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.