Here, Take This Placebo

Apr 9, 2013, 2:48 PM, Posted by

A hand full of pills

A recent report found "most family doctors" in the United Kingdom have given a patient a placebo.

And why not?, asks Phillipa Perry in The Guardian — after all, "a placebo is an effective, proven intervention that stimulates our bodies' own capacity to heal itself."

The answer to Perry’s question, some might argue, is deception — doctors shouldn’t lie to their patients. But what if deception wasn’t necessary for a placebo to work? What if you could tell someone you were giving them a placebo, and it could still improve their symptoms?

This idea is at the heart of Pioneer grantee Ted Kaptchuk's research at Harvard's Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS), the first multidisciplinary institute dedicated to studying placebos. 

In one of Kaptchuk's studies, "even patients who knew they were taking placebos described real improvement, reporting twice as much symptom relief as the no-treatment group," Harvard Magazine reports. "That’s a difference so significant, says Kaptchuk, it’s comparable to the improvement seen in trials for the best real...drugs."

The use of placebos is controversial, which is why we need to learn more about how they work and have an open discussion about how they should, and shouldn't, be used, as well as the precise mechanism by which they work. We also hope PiPs will help broaden the number of diversity of perspectives looking into the placebo effect.

Kaptchuk’s research is unconventional, which makes it a perfect fit for Pioneer. Our investment in PiPs is just one way we’re exploring the power of non-medical interventions to change behavior and improve health outcomes, from behavioral economics to positive health.

We’d love to hear your ideas about other unconventional approaches with the potential to transform health and healthcare.

What’s the most powerful example you’ve personally witnessed of a non-medical intervention radically improving someone’s health? 


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.