Photo: Placebo from Craig Sunter flickr photo stream

A therapeutic effect that cannot be attributed to an active ingredient of medication is termed ‘placebo’. The ‘placebo effect’ is far from a neutral description of the effect of ‘inert drugs’, being associated with the quackery and deception of sugar pills and snake oil. For example, upon launching a current consultation on prescribed items, NHS England’s chief executive described homeopathy as “at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds”. Therapy harnessing the placebo effect is described as a waste of money. But given the relative cheapness of homeopathy and the ubiquity of the placebo effect, the opposite might be true and it could represent money well spent.

The placebo effect is intriguing, not least because it challenges the crude, silver-bullet model of medical therapeutics, whereby passive patients receive active medical interventions. If patients experience an improvement in response to inert treatment, then their own role is perhaps not so passive after all. While the placebo effect has tended to be explained as an anomaly of patient psychosomatics, research into the use of placebo without deception shows that patients are far from passive players in their own recovery.

The placebo effect became visible during the rise of the randomised control trial (RCT) as the gold standard for determining the effectiveness of clinical interventions.  Inert pharmaceuticals are regularly compared with new drugs in trials where the patient doesn’t know whether s/he is taking real or fake drugs. Double-blinding has ensured that the clinician enrolling the patient to the trial is also unaware of who gets the real drugs. Dummy drugs have regularly been shown to be as effective as drugs with active ingredients and, in the process, placebo has been associated with patient deception.

The therapeutic effect of inert substances has been attributed to psychosomatics: the patient responds to the (false) idea of taking powerful medicine by experiencing reduced pain or otherwise improved symptoms.  Patients are highly suggestible, as shown by their routine experience of the side effects that they have been warned about, even when in receipt of the fake drug. Patients’ suggestibility can be seen as a psychological weakness or it can be seen as an inherent part of the ritual of clinical care.

In double-blinded random assignment chronic asthma patients were treated with

an inhaler containing:

a bronchodilator;

or a placebo inhaler;

or sham acupuncture;

or no treatment at all.

The placebo treatments did not improve patients’ lung function as well as the inhaler containing a bronchodilator, but they were as effective as the active drug in helping people feel better. This was said to show that ‘for the patient, the ritual of treatment can be very powerful.’ Qualities of the clinician might induce a therapeutic effect: the charm, conviction and engagement of the doctor might make a patient feel better, even if the trial is double-blinded.

The power of patients’ psychosomatic response to receiving care has begun to be seen as more than just interference with randomised control trials of new drugs. The possibilities of harnessing the placebo effect for therapeutic purposes are being explored. Inevitably this has meant that a biological basis has been sought with molecular imaging of dopamine release and MRI scans identifying the brain region specific for placebo analgesia. The predisposition to respond to placebo treatment has been nominated the ‘placebome’ with the speculation that it may be part of a ‘stable heritable trait’.

In order to harness the therapeutics of placebo, the ethics of deceiving patients regarding the fake nature of their treatment, has to be considered. Irritable Bowel Syndrome patients were given a placebo and were informed of the fact: their inert pills were dispensed in a bottle with ‘placebo’ printed on the label. Nonetheless the patients experienced greater improvement than the group receiving no treatment. This effect was attributed to ‘mind-body self-healing processes.’

Inert and active medications can be compared to one another relatively simply: for instance a sugar pill versus a pill containing statins. However, there are added complications when devising a sham surgical intervention. Surgery involves anaesthesia, incision, and suturing, among other things. How can this be mirrored in inert form? What constitutes a sham surgery?  Must the patient be actually cut open, given shallow incisions, or just a surgical dressing? Should the patient be subject to anaesthesia and if so, how much?

These complications notwithstanding, there have been regular calls for the effectiveness of therapeutic surgical interventions to be assessed against sham-surgery in randomised control trials.

In the 1970s a RCT of coronary-artery bypass grafting (CABG) revealed that sham-surgery relieved patients’ symptoms as effectively as real surgery and that most patients with chronic stable angina received no survival benefit from the surgery. The results of the RCT were disregarded on various grounds and bypass grafting continued, even though the mechanism underlying the relief of symptoms was unclear.

Surgical interventions have regularly been found no more effective than sham versions of the surgery for the relief of symptoms such that the finding has become difficult to ignore. A leading orthopaedic surgeon is quoted as describing the difficulty digesting the knowledge that his handiwork is only as effective as sham surgery in alleviating patients’ symptoms:

“In many ways it’s much more confrontational than understanding that a tablet might be a placebo. Understanding that a procedure that you’ve been trained to do and that you’ve done all your life and that you’ve trained other people to do is simply a placebo: that’s pretty tough for surgeons to take.”

Despite this surgeon’s discomfort, placebo controls have been deemed acceptable as a means of evaluating surgical intervention and the ethics of giving patients sham surgery addressed. But it has taken decades for surgeons to recognise the placebo effect as part-and-parcel of their practice, the high status of randomised control trial results notwithstanding.  Can we interpret this reluctance as part of a wider reluctance to engage meaningfully in patient participation?

Health practitioners dealing with chronic conditions in community settings have little choice but to negotiate with patients over treatment and symptom management. Have surgeons been protected from the need to engage with negotiation by a high-tech hospital setting, not to mention meeting their patients when unconscious?

Measurable placebo effects of surgical intervention show the meaning of disease, symptoms and their treatment clearly has a bearing on outcomes. As explored by Daniel Moerman in his 2002 book on the placebo effect, the creation of meaning is key to medical therapeutics. Attending to the patient’s understanding and interpretation of their treatment matters in surgery as in other medical interventions.

Moerman argues that ‘placebo effect’ is better termed the ‘meaning response’ defined as ‘the psychological and physiological effects of meaning in the treatment of illness’. The ‘meaning response’ covers the effects associated with active as well as inert medicines implicated in recovery. Moerman describes how recovery is all about assembling elements of meaning in order to make sense of one’s story. To maximise a person’s chances of recovery, the elements of treatment need to be meaningful to him or her.  To illustrate this process, Moerman describes how he himself would approach a surgical intervention, if he was to be referred for one. He would employ a


very experienced surgeon (I know just the guy), and I would ask him to be as non-invasive as possible. I would think carefully about what the operation meant, to me, to him, to the assembled assistants… to my family and friends. I would think carefully about the hundreds of thousands of people who are helped every year by this complex procedure… I would ask that they play Louis Armstrong recordings during the operation – loudly! – and that I be able to listen to Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto in the recovery room.

Perhaps an American University professor (with good health insurance) could realistically achieve these conditions for his heart bypass surgery. But most of us could not. Nonetheless, the picture Moerman draws of arranging surgery to maximise the patient’s confidence about his chances of recovery is beguiling. For one thing, it shows what a long way away from this dream we are, despite the ongoing patient participation agenda.

Patient involvement in making treatment meaningful is central to the therapeutics of medicine, and not an optional extra that is secondary to real clinical imperatives, to be jettisoned in under austerity politics. The persistence of the placebo effect as anomaly shows how little active patient participation determines routine healthcare practice. The gap between the rhetoric of patient participation and medical practice that presumes the passive nature of patients is highlighted by the puzzle of the placebo effect.

NHS England’s Clinical Commissioners Group consultation generated headlines by the implication that the £92,412 spent nationally on homeopathy could be saved for more worthy evidence-based medicine.  Unravelling the mysteries of how sham surgery makes people feel better might offer more patient-centred and participative means of responding to the politics of austerity.

‘Items which should not routinely be prescribed in primary care: A Consultation on guidance for CCGs’ seeks the views of all Clinical Care Groups, the public and patients, and any relevant interest group or body. The consultation will be open for three months from 21 July until 21 October 2017.