The online version of this article (https://doi.org/10.1186/s12874-018-0474-1) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
While full disclosure of information on placebo control in participant information leaflets (PILs) in a clinical trial is ethically required during informed consent, there have been concerning voices such complete disclosures may increase unnecessary nocebo responses, breach double-blind designs, and/or affect direction of trial outcomes. Taking an example of acupuncture studies, we aimed to examine what participants are told about placebo controls in randomized, placebo-controlled trials, and how it may affect blinding and trial outcomes.
Authors of published randomized, placebo-controlled trials of acupuncture were identified from PubMed search and invited to provide PILs for their trials. The collected PILs were subjected to content analysis and categorized based on degree of information disclosure on placebo. Blinding index (BI) as a chance-corrected measurement of blinding was calculated and its association with different information disclosure was examined. The impact of different information disclosure from PILs on primary outcomes was estimated using a random effects model.
In 65 collected PILs, approximately 57% of trials fully informed the participants of placebo control, i.e. full disclosure, while the rest gave deceitful or no information on placebo, i.e. no disclosure. Placebo groups in the studies with no disclosure tended to make more opposite guesses on the type of received intervention than those with disclosure, which may reflect wishful thinking (BI −0.21 vs. −0.16; p = 0.38). In outcome analysis, studies with no disclosure significantly favored acupuncture than those with full disclosure (standardized mean difference − 0.43 vs. −0.12; p = 0.03), probably due to enhanced expectations.
How participants are told about placebos can be another potential factor that may influence participant blinding and study outcomes by possibly modulating patient expectation. As we have few empirical findings on this issue, future studies are needed to determine whether the present findings are relevant to other medical disciplines and at the same time a routine practice of fully disclosing placebo information in PILs calls for reevaluation.
Additional file 1: Appendix 1. Demographics of collected PILs. Appendix 2. Placebo control groups in the included studies. Appendix 3. Characteristics of the included studies. Appendix 4. Description of placebo acupunctures in PILs. Appendix 5. How different regions describe placebo acupuncture differently. Appendix 6. A post-hoc subgroup analysis between studies from Asian and non-Asian countries. (DOCX 3144 kb)12874_2018_474_MOESM1_ESM.docx
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- Does different information disclosure on placebo control affect blinding and trial outcomes? A case study of participant information leaflets of randomized placebo-controlled trials of acupuncture
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