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The University of Southampton

How might GPs be able to use the placebo effect to benefit their patients?

Published: 8 March 2012

A new study led by Psychology researchers will explore this issue with funding of £45k from the National Institute for Health Research School for Primary Care Research.

The study will be based in Primary Care and led by researchers from Psychology, Dr Felicity Bishop, and Primary Care, Prof George Lewith, Prof Paul Little, Dr Hazel Everitt, Dr Adam Geraghty.

The research team at Southampton will carry out a 1-year project to create a novel and comprehensive taxonomy of the different techniques that could be used to harness the placebo effect in primary care.

Because this is a new and controversial area for research it is important to work carefully. In particular, the team are sensitive to the ethical controversies around the idea of using placebo effects in clinical practice and the need for any intervention to be acceptable to patients and clinicians. A key component of this project involves incorporating patients’ and clinicians’ views into the taxonomy, by convening a series of structured group discussions and eliciting participants’ views. They will also incorporate the views of other experts (ethicists, leading primary care and placebo researchers) by carrying out a survey to ascertain their views as to the feasibility and plausibility of each technique. At the end of this project they will deliver an original comprehensive taxonomy of techniques to elicit placebo effects, that incorporates the views of three key stakeholder groups – patients, clinicians, and researchers.

The taxonomy will be published to enable others to build on and use the findings.  

Background on the placebo effect

The placebo effect can exert a powerful influence on common symptoms including pain, low mood, digestive symptoms, and insomnia. Recently, experts have called for more research that tries to take the findings from laboratory studies of placebos and apply them in real world clinical settings to improve the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of health care. One way of doing this would be to consider having GPs prescribe placebos. Other, probably more acceptable, approaches include learning lessons from the published work on placebos about how to manage patients' expectations of treatments so as to maximise therapeutic effectiveness (as the overall effectiveness of most treatments consists of both the effect of the intervention itself and the effect of the meaning that the patient ascribes to the intervention).

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