Harvard says placebos are going mainstream

A fascinating article from Harvard Magazine on the work of Ted Kaptchuk, head of the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter, a multidisciplinary institute dedicated solely to placebo study.

‘It’s a nod to changing attitudes in Western medicine, and a direct result of the small but growing group of researchers like Kaptchuk who study not if, but how, placebo effects work. Explanations for the phenomenon come from fields across the scientific map—clinical science, psychology, anthropology, biology, social economics, neuroscience. Disregarding the knowledge that placebo treatments can affect certain ailments, Kaptchuk says, “is like ignoring a huge chunk of healthcare.” As caregivers, “we should be using every tool in the box.”’

Kaptchuk is getting some extraordinary results. One landmark study involved patients suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrom (IBS), and consistent with some other studies cited in our blog, it seems that the placebo effect is still engaged even when patients know they’re being offered placebos.

‘One group received no treatment. The other patients were told they’d be taking fake, inert drugs (delivered in bottles labeled “placebo pills”) and told also that placebos often have healing effects.The study’s results shocked the investigators themselves: even patients who knew they were taking placebos described real improvement, reporting twice as much symptom relief as the no-treatment group. That’s a difference so significant, says Kaptchuk, it’s comparable to the improvement seen in trials for the best real IBS drugs.’

So Harvard and a nest of affiliated research hospitals are getting into placebo research. Check out the website of the Program in Placebo Studies for more.

‘For many years, the placebo effect was considered to be no more than a nuisance variable that needed to be controlled in clinical trials. Only recently have researchers redefined it as the key to understanding the healing that arises from medical ritual, the context of treatment, the patient-provider relationship and the power of imagination, trust and hope.

Although our biomedical health care system often considers these humanistic dimensions of care as secondary to the administration of pharmaceuticals and procedures, the emerging field of placebo studies is producing scientific evidence that these more intangible elements of medicine may fundamentally contribute to the improvement of patient outcomes.’