A Drug Works Better When Patients Think It's More Expensive

Pharmacy technician Angelina Lombardo helps a customer. Scott Olson/Getty Images

People’s perceptions of the cost of a drug may affect how much they benefit, according to a study of people with Parkinson’s disease.

The study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, shows the patients get benefits even if the drug is a placebo.

“Patients’ expectations play an important role in the effectiveness of their treatments, and the placebo effect has been well documented, especially in people with Parkinson’s disease,” said Alberto J. Espay of the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. “We wanted to see if the people’s perceptions of the cost of the drug they received would affect the placebo response.”

For the study, 12 people with Parkinson’s disease were told that they would receive two formulations of the same drug, with the second shot given after the first shot wore off.

They were told that the formulations were believed to be of similar effectiveness, but that they differed in manufacturing cost: $100 per dose versus $1,500 per dose.

In reality, they received only a saline solution for both injections but were told they were receiving either the “cheap” or “expensive” drug first.

When they received the “expensive” drug first, motor skills improved by 28% compared to when they received the “cheap” drug.

On one test of motor skills, scores improved by seven percentage points when taking the “expensive” drug first but improved by only three points when taking the “cheap” drug.

“If we can find strategies to harness the placebo response to enhance the benefits of treatments, we could potentially maximise the benefit of treatment while reducing the dosage of drugs needed and possibly reducing side effects,” Espay said.

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