Context Effects in Western Herbal Medicine: Fundamental to Effectiveness?

Explore (NY). 2016 Jan-Feb;12(1):55-62. doi: 10.1016/j.explore.2015.10.004. Epub 2015 Oct 26.


Western herbal medicine (WHM) is a complex healthcare system that uses traditional plant-based medicines in patient care. Typical preparations are individualized polyherbal formulae that, unlike herbal pills, retain the odor and taste of whole herbs. Qualitative studies in WHM show patient-practitioner relationships to be collaborative. Health narratives are co-constructed, leading to assessments, and treatments with personal significance for participants. It is hypothesized that the distinct characteristics of traditional herbal preparations and patient-herbalist interactions, in conjunction with the WHM physical healthcare environment, evoke context (placebo) effects that are fundamental to the overall effectiveness of herbal treatment. These context effects may need to be minimized to demonstrate pharmacological efficacy of herbal formulae in randomized, placebo-controlled trials, optimized to demonstrate effectiveness of WHM in pragmatic trials, and consciously harnessed to enhance outcomes in clinical practice.

Keywords: Context; Herbal preparations; Patient–practitioner relationship; Placebo effect; Western herbal medicine.

MeSH terms

  • Environment Design*
  • Health Facilities
  • Health Personnel
  • Herbal Medicine*
  • Humans
  • Medicine, Traditional
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Phytotherapy*
  • Plant Preparations
  • Plants, Medicinal
  • Professional-Patient Relations*


  • Plant Preparations