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Issue of October 22, 2014

A hope note
A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.


February 26, 2014 | 10:36 AM

A resident in a nursing home developed a rash that itched. Word got around that she had scabies. Before long, many staff and residents who had been around her started itching and scratching. Skeptical that the rash was scabies, her physician called in a dermatologist. Sure enough, the patient had a non-contagious type of dermatitis, and, as soon as the word got out that her rash was not scabies, everyone's itch went away.

"Belief," William James said, "helps create the fact."

Just as negative beliefs help create negative facts (itching from presumed scabies), positive beliefs can help create positive facts (itching ends).

Consider the placebo. When a trusted physician prescribes a placebo, 30 percent of the time the patient gets good results. A placebo, or "sugar pill," has nothing medicinal in it. Drug companies, as a rule, don't even manufacture a medication that gets less than 30 percent satisfactory results because they know a sugar pill can accomplish that.

The classic placebo study was conducted by anesthesiologist Henry Knowles Beecher. In his 1955 paper, "The Powerful Placebo," he examined 15 studies involving 1,082 patients and concluded that 35 percent who were given a placebo got "satisfactory relief" for everything from post-surgery pain to headaches to anxiety. Belief helps create the fact.

The great teacher, Sir William Osler, was wont to tell his medical students: "What happens to a patient with tuberculosis depends more on what he has in his head than what he has in his chest."

"One of the very first things I figured out about life," novelist Barbara Kingsolver ruminates, "is that it's better to be a grateful person than a grumpy one because you have to live in the same world either way, and, if you're grateful, you have more fun."

You may be healthier, too.

Dr. Wayne Willis

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