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Physician perspectives on placebo ethics
  1. John Bliamptis1,
  2. Anne Barnhill2
  1. 1 School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
  2. 2 Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
  1. Correspondence to John Bliamptis, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore, MD 21202, USA; jbliamp1{at}


Clinical use of placebos is controversial among bioethicists. While placebos have been shown to provide benefit for patients with some conditions, offering placebos to patients without disclosing that they are placebos raises ethical concerns, including the concern that this lack of transparency about the nature of placebos amounts to deceiving patients. Some have proposed open-label placebos (OLPs) as an ethically preferable alternative: patients are offered placebos and told that the treatment being offered is a placebo. To contribute to the ongoing discussion about the ethics and feasibility of clinical use of placebos, we conducted focus groups to explore physician attitudes about clinical use of placebos, including non-disclosed and OLPs, and physician attitudes about the underlying ethical issues. We found that while the non-transparency and deceptiveness of offering non-disclosed placebos was a concern for some physicians, their primary focus when considering both non-disclosed and OLPs was identifying and weighing potential harms and benefits to patients. Some participants also felt further research and training in prescribing OLPs would be needed before they would be willing to use them in their practice.

  • autonomy
  • clinical ethics
  • ethics

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Data are available upon request.

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  • Contributors Both authors contributed equally to this manuscript.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.