Seminar Series on the Power of the Placebo Effect

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has funded The Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS) to curate a series of five public forums that will increase awareness and foster dialog about placebo effects among a wider range of audiences, including patients, health policy-makers, providers, and researchers from other fields. Forum topics will include the neuroscience behind placebo effects, the role of clinical guidelines and the patient voice, and lessons about medical care from anthropology, philosophy, history, and religion.

Each forum will also be accompanied by a smaller gathering of key stakeholders to facilitate cross-discipline collaborations and candid conversations about the state of the field. Ideally, these gatherings will result in new collaborative projects and the publication of academic and lay papers.



The Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter

Boston, MA

Ted Kaptchuk

The Power of the Placebo Effect

What is the "placebo effect"? It turns out to be much more than what happens when a patient takes a sugar pill in a clinical trial. An emerging field of study is redefining “the placebo effect” as everything that surrounds the health care experience that can influence patient outcomes—from a positive doctor-patient interaction to the power of imagination, hope, trust, persuasion, and compassion.

The field’s growing body of research has produced clinical and neurobiological evidence that these placebo effects may themselves have medical benefits and can even enhance the effectiveness of existing medicines and procedures. If the placebo effect is to become a legitimate addition to the clinician’s toolbox, then we must better understand its underlying mechanisms and the circumstances in which it is most effective.

The Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS) hosted at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is the first research center dedicated to studying the placebo effect through interdisciplinary, translational research initiatives that bridge the basic, clinical, and social sciences, as well as the humanities.

"The placebo effect is people getting better without any active ingredients," says Harvard Medical School's Ted Kaptchuk.

"The placebo effect is people getting better without any active ingredients," says Harvard Medical School's Ted Kaptchuk.

"The placebo effect is people getting better without any active ingredients," says Harvard Medical School's Ted Kaptchuk.

Lori A. Melichar

Lori Melichar, director

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the important roles that the many intangible dimensions of the clinical encounter can play in health and healing. It’s time to learn more about the placebo effect’s powerful potential and begin to apply this learning to improve health outcomes," says director Lori Melichar.

Research: Placebos can improve patient outcomes—even when patients know they’re taking a #placebo

Second Forum: Placebo Effects in Guidelines, Practice, and Patient Choice

The second forum, "Placebo Effects in Guidelines, Practice, and Patient Choice," was held on December 9-10, 2013 at Mass General in Boston. Leading academic experts and clinicians examined how placebo effects might be incorporated into clinical guidelines and the decision-making process between provider and patient. 

THIRD Forum: Healing and Placebo: Medicine, Religion and Ritual

On February 11, 2014 at Harvard University, Tanya Luhrmann, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University and author of When God Talks Back, and an interdisciplinary panel of experts, explored the intersection of medicine, religion, and ritual. Both religion and medicine draw on the unique power of ritual and on the human capacity to imagine, trust, and hope to provide strength and healing in society. How can medicine learn from religion and vice versa?  

Fourth Forum: The Efficacy of Placebos: A historian's perspective

On May 21, 2014, the fourth forum in the series featured a keynote by Charles E. Rosenberg, Professor of the History of Science and Ernest E. Monrad Professor in the Social Sciences at Harvard University. The session explores the relationship between placebo effects and therapeutic efficacy throughout the history of medical intervention. Watch the recorded session to see Professor Rosenberg launch an inquiry into what was really happening when therapeutic techniques, that today might be dismissed and ridiculed, were deemed efficacious by clinicians and patients alike.

  • View the forum video recap to the right.
  • To follow the conversation before, during, and after each forum on Twitter, use the hashtag #placebotalks.