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

Haas, Julia W., Ongaro, Giulio ORCID: 0000-0003-2782-0642, Jacobson, Eric, Conboy, Lisa A., Nee, Judy, Iturrino, Johanna, Rangan, Vikram, Lembo, Anthony, Kaptchuk, Ted J. and Ballou, Sarah (2022) Patients’ experiences treated with open-label placebo versus double-blind placebo: a mixed methods qualitative study. BMC Psychology, 10 (1). ISSN 2050-7283

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Identification Number: 10.1186/s40359-022-00731-w


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.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2022 The Authors
Divisions: Anthropology
Subjects: R Medicine > RM Therapeutics. Pharmacology
R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine
Date Deposited: 17 Feb 2022 00:08
Last Modified: 17 Apr 2024 19:45

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