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BBC Horizon placebo back pain study: a public trial of the effectiveness of placebos

Jeremy Howick, Sarah J Kennedy, Joe Myerscough, Michael Mosley, Claire Madigan


Background: Systematic reviews of randomized trials show that empathic care (a core component of person-centered care) and placebos can reduce chronic back pain. However, this evidence has rarely been implemented and public knowledge of empathy and placebos is limited.
Objectives: We conducted a trial (‘OPTICARE’) in a real-life setting. The trial and its aftermath were filmed for a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Horizon documentary.
Methods: Eligible participants aged 18-75 years with self-reported persistent back pain (>3 months) were randomised to: (1) Control group (SC): had a standard consultation and a leaflet describing NHS recommendations for back pain. (2) Standard placebo group (SP): received a three-week course of placebo pills (2 capsules, twice a day) and a standard (5-10 minute) general practice (GP) consultation. (3) Empathy and placebo group (EP): received the same as SP treatment as the standard placebo group and a longer (15-30 minute) consultation with a doctor prompted to be highly empathetic. Self-reported changes in pain after 3 weeks were measured using the Visual Analogue Scale and the Roland Morris Disability Questionnaire. The process was filmed by Windfall Films.
Results: The documentary, entitled ‘The Placebo Experiment: Can My Brain Cure My Body?’ was first broadcast on BBC Two in the UK on 4 October 2018. It was watched by 1.9 million people. Almost all of the 117 participants in the trial reported a reduction in pain and magnitude of placebo effects is similar in real world settings as it is in clinical trials.
Conclusions: This was the largest placebo study we are aware of that was conducted with a main purpose of educating the public about placebo effects and the first known published report of a study designed for a documentary. Although the trial suffered from a number of limitations, including contamination and lack of power, it is contended that randomised trials of placebo treatments can be conducted so that they benefit and educate the public.


Back pain, empathy, general practice, NHS recommendations, person-centered healthcare, placebo, randomised controlled trial, systematic reviews

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