Abstract

Patients' experiences treated with open-label placebo versus double-blind placebo: a mixed methods qualitative study

BMC Psychol. 2022 Feb 4;10(1):20.doi: 10.1186/s40359-022-00731-w.

Julia W Haas # 1 2Giulio Ongaro # 2 3Eric Jacobson 1 2 4Lisa A Conboy 1 2Judy Nee 1Johanna Iturrino 1Vikram Rangan 1Anthony Lembo 1Ted J Kaptchuk 2 4Sarah Ballou 5 6

 
     

Author information

1Division of Gastroenterology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, 330 Brookline Ave, Boston, MA, 02215, USA.

2Program in Placebo Studies, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.

3Department of Anthropology, The London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.

4Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.

5Division of Gastroenterology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, 330 Brookline Ave, Boston, MA, 02215, USA. sballou@bidmc.harvard.edu.

6Program in Placebo Studies, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA. sballou@bidmc.harvard.edu.

#Contributed equally.

Abstract

Background: There is increasing evidence suggesting that open-label placebo (OLP) is an effective treatment for several medical conditions defined by self-report. However, little is known about patients' experiences with OLP, and no studies have directly compared patients' experiences in double-blind placebo (DBP) conditions.

Methods: This study was nested in a large randomized-controlled trial comparing the effects of OLP and DBP treatments in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). We randomly selected 33 participants for interviews concerning their experiences in the parent trial. The data were qualitatively analyzed using an iterative immersion/crystallization approach. We then compared the qualitative interview data to the quantitative IBS severity data assessed during the parent trial, using a mixed methods approach.

Results: Two prominent interview themes were identified: (1) the participants' feelings about their treatment allocation and (2) their reflections about the treatment. Both OLP and DBP participants mentioned hope and curiosity as major feelings driving them to engage with their treatment. However, while DBP participants tended to be more enthusiastic about their allocation, OLP participants were more ambivalent. Furthermore, OLP participants reflected more on their treatment, often involving noticeable cognitive and emotional processes of self-reflection. They offered a variety of explanations for their symptom improvement and were significantly less likely to attribute it to the treatment itself than DBP participants (Χ2 [3] = 8.28; p = .041). Similarly, the participants' retrospective narratives of symptom improvement were significantly correlated with their corresponding quantitative IBS severity scores only in DBP (p's ≤ .006) but not in OLP (p's ≥ .637).

Conclusion: OLP and DBP participants share feelings of hope, uncertainty and curiosity but differ in the extent of conscious reflection. The counter-intuitive OLP prompts more self-examination, ambivalent feelings and active engagement compared to DBP. At the same time, OLP participants are more reluctant to attribute symptom improvement to their treatment. Our findings substantially add to the emerging picture of factors that distinguish OLP and DBP and their potential mechanisms.

 

 

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