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, 9 (7), e101822

When and Why Placebo-Prescribing Is Acceptable and Unacceptable: A Focus Group Study of Patients' Views


When and Why Placebo-Prescribing Is Acceptable and Unacceptable: A Focus Group Study of Patients' Views

Felicity L Bishop et al. PLoS One.


Background: Surveys of doctors suggest that they use placebos and placebo effects clinically to help patients. However, patients' views are not well-understood. We aimed to identify when and why placebo-prescribing in primary care might be acceptable and unacceptable to patients.

Methods: A purposive diverse sample of 58 English-speaking adults (18 men; aged 19-80 years) participated in 11 focus groups. Vignettes describing doctors prescribing placebos in primary care were used to initiate discussions. Data were analyzed inductively.

Results: Participants discussed diverse harms and benefits of placebo-prescribing for individual patients, carers, healthcare providers, and society. Two perspectives on placebo-prescribing were identified. First, the "consequentialist" perspective focused on the potential for beneficial outcomes of placebo-prescribing. Here, some participants thought placebos are beneficial and should be used clinically; they often invoked the power of the mind or mind-body interactions. Others saw placebos as ineffective and therefore a waste of time and money. Second, the "respecting autonomy" perspective emphasized the harms caused by the deceptive processes thought necessary for placebo-prescribing. Here, participants judged placebo-prescribing unacceptable because placebo-prescribers deceive patients, thus a doctor who prescribes placebos cannot be trusted and patients' autonomy is compromised. They also saw placebo-responders as gullible, which deterred them from trying placebos themselves. Overall, the word "placebo" was often thought to imply "ineffective"; some participants suggested alternative carefully chosen language that could enable doctors to prescribe placebos without directly lying to patients.

Conclusions: Negative views of placebos derive from beliefs that placebos do not work and/or that they require deception by the doctor. Positive views are pragmatic in that if placebos work then any associated processes (e.g. mechanisms, deception) are deemed unimportant. Public education about placebos and their effects is warranted and research to identify optimal ways of harnessing placebo effects in clinical practice is needed.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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Grant support

This study was supported by an internal grant from Primary Care and Population Sciences, University of Southampton. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.