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Should we reconsider the routine use of placebo controls in clinical research?

BACKGROUND: Modern clinical-research practice favors placebo controls over usual-care controls whenever a credible placebo exists. An unrecognized consequence of this preference is that clinicians are more limited in their ability to provide the benefits of the non-specific healing effects of placebos in clinical practice. METHODS: We examined the issues in choosing between placebo and usual-care controls. We considered why placebo controls place constraints on clinicians and the trade-offs involved in the choice of control groups. RESULTS: We find that, for certain studies, investigators should consider usual-care controls, even if an adequate placebo is available. Employing usual-care controls would be of greatest value for pragmatic trials evaluating treatments to improve clinical care and for which threats to internal validity can be adequately managed without a placebo-control condition. CONCLUSIONS: Intentionally choosing usual-care controls, even when a satisfactory placebo exists, would allow clinicians to capture the value of non-specific therapeutic benefits that are common to all interventions. The result could be more effective, patient-centered care that makes the best use of both specific and non-specific benefits of medical interventions.

Authors: Avins AL; Cherkin DC; Sherman KJ; Goldberg H; Pressman A

Trials. 2012 Apr 27;13:44.

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