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, 27 (4), 186-93

Reexamination of the Ethics of Placebo Use in Clinical Practice

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Reexamination of the Ethics of Placebo Use in Clinical Practice

Atsushi Asai et al. Bioethics.

Abstract

A placebo is a substance or intervention believed to be inactive, but is administered by the healthcare professional as if it was an active medication. Unlike standard treatments, clinical use of placebo usually involves deception and is therefore ethically problematic. Our attitudes toward the clinical use of placebo, which inevitably includes deception or withholding information, have a tremendous effect on our practice regarding truth-telling and informed consent. A casual attitude towards it weakens the current practice based on shared decision-making and mutual trust between patients and healthcare professionals. Issues concerning the clinical use of placebo are thus intimately related to patient-provider relationships, the public's trust in medicine, and medical education. A review of recent survey studies suggests that the clinical use of placebo appears to be fairly well accepted among healthcare professionals and is common in clinical settings in various countries. However, we think that an ethical discussion is urgently needed because of its controversial nature. If judged to be ethically wrong, the practice should end. In the present paper, we discuss the ethicality of the clinical use of placebo with deception and argue against it, concluding that it is unethical and should be banned. We will show that most arguments in favor of the clinical use of placebo can be refuted and are therefore incorrect or weak. These arguments will be presented and examined individually. Finally, we will briefly consider issues relevant to the clinical use of placebo without deception.

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