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Academia and the Profession |

The Placebo Effect in Alternative Medicine: Can the Performance of a Healing Ritual Have Clinical Significance?

Ted J. Kaptchuk, OMD
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From Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.


Acknowledgment: The author thanks Robb Scholten, June Cobb, Pat Wilkinson, John C. Wilson, Maria Van Rompay, and Marcia Rich for editorial and research assistance.

Grant Support: In part by the National Institutes of Health (1R01AT00402-01, U24 AR43441, and 1R21AT00553), the John E. Fetzer Institute, the Waletzky Charitable Trust, the Friends of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and American Specialty Health Plan.

Requests for Single Reprints: Ted J. Kaptchuk, OMD, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, 330 Brookline Avenue, Boston, MA 02215.


Ann Intern Med. 2002;136(11):817-825. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-136-11-200206040-00011
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In alternative medicine, the main question regarding placebo has been whether a given therapy has more than a placebo effect. Just as mainstream medicine ignores the clinical significance of its own placebo effect, the placebo effect of unconventional medicine is disregarded except for polemics. This essay looks at the placebo effect of alternative medicine as a distinct entity. This is done by reviewing current knowledge about the placebo effect and how it may pertain to alternative medicine. The term placebo effect is taken to mean not only the narrow effect of a dummy intervention but also the broad array of nonspecific effects in the patient–physician relationship, including attention; compassionate care; and the modulation of expectations, anxiety, and self-awareness. Five components of the placebo effect—patient, practitioner, patient-practitioner interaction, nature of the illness, and treatment and setting—are examined.Therapeutic patterns that heighten placebo effects are especially prominent in unconventional healing, and it seems possible that the unique drama of this realm may have “enhanced” placebo effects in particular conditions. Ultimately, only prospective trials directly comparing the placebo effects of unconventional and mainstream medicine can provide reliable evidence to support such claims. Nonetheless, the possibility of enhanced placebo effects raises complex conundrums. Can an alternative ritual with only nonspecific psychosocial effects have more positive health outcomes than a proven, specific conventional treatment? What makes therapy legitimate, positive clinical outcomes or culturally acceptable methods of attainment? Who decides?

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