In discussing “alternative” medicine it’s impossible not to discuss, at least briefly, placebo effects. Indeed, one of the most common complaints we at SBM voice about clinical trials of alternative medicine is the lack of adequate controls — meaning adequate controls for placebo and nonspecific effects. Just type “acupuncture” in the search box in the upper left hand corner of the blog masthead, and you’ll pull up a number of discussions of acupuncture clinical trials that SBM bloggers have written over the last three years. If you check some of these posts, you’ll find that in nearly every case we spend considerable time and effort discussing whether the placebo or sham control used was adequate, noting that, the better the sham controls, the less likely acupuncture studies are to have a positive result.
Some of the less clueless advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) seem to realize that much of what they do relies on placebo effects. As a result, they tend to argue that what they do is useful and good because it’s “harnessing the placebo effect” for therapeutic purpose. One problem that advocates of SBM (like those of us at SBM who have taken an interest in this topic) tend to have with this argument is that it has always been assumed that a good placebo requires on some level at least some deception of the patient by either saying or implying that he is receiving an active treatment or medicine of some kind. This, we have argued, is a major ethical problem in using placebos in patients, and advocates of placebo medicine appear to agree, because they frequently argue that placebo effects can be harnessed without deception. Indeed, just last week there was an example of this argument plastered all over multiple news outlets and blogs in the form of stories and posts with headlines and titles like:
- Sugar Pills Work Even When People Know They Are Fake
- Fake Pills Can Work, Even If Patients Know It
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Placebo Works Even if Patients Know
- Placebos help, even when patients know about them
- Evidence that placebos could work even if you tell people they’re taking placebos
- Meet the Ethical Placebo: A Story that Heals
Except for one, every one of these articles or blog posts discussing a new study in PLoS ONE that purports to have found that placebo effects can be elicited in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) without deception buys completely into that very thesis. For example, here is an example, taken from the Reuters story about this study:
Placebos can help patients feel better, even if they are fully aware they are taking a sugar pill, researchers reported on Wednesday on an unusual experiment aimed to better understand the “placebo effect.”
Nearly 60 percent of patients with irritable bowel syndrome reported they felt better after knowingly taking placebos twice a day, compared to 35 percent of patients who did not get any new treatment, they report in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.
“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,” Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who led the study, said in a statement.