The role of placebos in family medicine: Implications of evidence and ethics for general practitioners

Aust J Gen Pract. 2019 Oct;48(10):700-705. doi: 10.31128/AJGP-05-19-4939.


Background: Placebo use is prevalent in primary care. A wealth of discourse on the ethical use of placebos in clinical contexts invariably assumes that placebos oblige practitioners to peddle in deception. However, the recent surge in empirical findings within the field of 'placebo studies' provides a very different perspective: namely, that placebos may yet prove to be both effective and ethical.

Objective: The aim of this article is to synthesise state-of-the-art scientific and bioethical research to provide up-to-date recommendations on placebo use for general practitioners.

Discussion: After disambiguating placebo concepts, this article outlines experimental studies into placebo effects and explores the ethical and evidence-based arguments for prescribing placebos. Evaluating the latest research into 'open-label placebos', it can be surmised that there are not yet persuasive grounds to incorporate these treatments into routine clinical care. Notwithstanding, the quality of physician interactions may go some way to harnessing remedial placebo effects among patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research
  • Deception
  • Drug Labeling
  • Family Practice / ethics*
  • Humans
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Placebo Effect*
  • Primary Health Care / ethics*