Background: Placebos play an important role in clinical trials and several surveys have shown that they are also common in daily practice. Previous research focused primarily on the frequency of placebo use in outpatient care. Our aim was to explore physicians' views on the use of placebos in daily practice, whereby distinction was made between pure placebos (substances with no pharmacological effect, e.g. sugar pills) and impure placebos (substances with pharmacological effect but not on the condition being treated, e.g. antibiotics in viral infections or vitamins).
Methods: We performed semi-structured interviews with a sample of twelve primary care physicians (PCPs). The interview addressed individual definitions of a placebo, attitudes towards placebos and the participants' reasons for prescribing them. The interviews were transcribed and analysed using qualitative content analysis.
Results: The definition of a placebo given by the majority of the PCPs in our study was one which actually only describes pure placebos. This definition, combined with the fact that most impure placebos were not regarded as placebos at all, means that most of the participating PCPs were not aware of the extent to which placebos are used in daily practice. The PCPs stated that they use placebos (both pure and impure) mainly in the case of non-severe diseases for which there was often no satisfactory somatic explanation. According to the PCPs, cases like this are often treated by complementary and alternative therapies and these, too, are associated with placebo effects. However, all PCPs felt that the ethical aspects of such treatment were unclear and they were unsure as to how to communicate the use of placebos to their patients. Most of them would appreciate ethical guidelines on how to deal with this issue.
Conclusions: Many PCPs seem to be unaware that some of the drugs they prescribe are classified as impure placebos. Perceptions of effectiveness and doubts about the legal and ethical aspects of the use of placebos by PCPs may discourage their application. Dissemination of guidelines and consensus papers may be one approach, but it has to be acknowledged that the topic itself is in conflict with the PCPs' perception of themselves as professional and reliable physicians.