The placebo effect can be a legitimate aspect of complementary treatments and therapies. And we need to develop rigorous research that takes it into account. That is the message from an expert report: Assessing complementary practice published by the King's Fund 10th August 2009: www.kingsfund.org.uk.
Led by eminent physician Dame Carol Black – a former President of the Royal College of Physicians and of the Academy of Royal Colleges – a group of distinguished doctors and scientists has concluded that current assumptions about what constitutes good scientific evidence are too narrow.
New methods are necessary that can take account of the context in which treatment is provided, reflect the importance attached to treating the whole person – and accommodate the significant but often neglected fact that the relationship between cause and effect is not always straightforward. Then we can begin to establish a sound evidence base for which complementary therapies are effective and which are not.
Dame Carol Black's report echoes the long held views of the Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health. The Foundation hopes that government and medical research bodies as well as scientists and clinicians, will take careful account of this thorough and thoughtful analysis.
Professor Stephen Holgate is a Foundation Fellow and a member of the King's Fund Advisory Group that produced the report - he said:
As scientists, we have often sneered at the placebo effect. But as doctors, we know it can have a real impact on the outcomes of treatment for our patients. What is it, after all, but a trigger to the body's natural ability to heal itself? That is something worth encouraging.
It is often not appreciated that 80% of the money the NHS spends on patient care goes to treating long term, chronic illness. Conditions like arthritis, respiratory disease, all sorts of progressive diseases. They rarely attract headlines, but they have a huge impact on the millions who experience them.
If we are serious about alleviating unnecessary suffering – and if we want NHS money to be spent wisely – then it is essential we find a way of testing treatments that have the potential to improve the quality of life of these patients and perhaps support of even replace more costly technological medicine.