Parents are generally open to placebo use in children – with caveats

placebo use in children

Placebos are a key ingredient of any controlled clinical trial, the yardstick against which experimental drugs are measured. Placebos are also increasingly used as a treatment in their own right, as studies show that they make people feel better through a “mind-body” effect. But do parents find placebos acceptable for their children? A study published today by The Journal of Pediatricsled by Boston Children’s Hospital, found the answer is mostly yes, provided ethical guidelines are followed.

“The question of placebos is more complex when it comes to children, since parents must make medical decisions on their behalf,” says Vanda Faria, PhD, a research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center for Pain and the Brain and first author on the study. “Large placebo responses have been seen in a variety of pediatric conditions, and parent’s perceptions can influence how well placebos work. At the same time, little is still known about the potential harms of prolonged drug therapy on children’s development. Sometimes, the best intervention might not involve pharmacotherapy.”

Nuanced parental attitudes toward placebo

The researchers used an online survey to ask 1,000 U.S. parents about their attitudes toward placebos. Their findings:

  • 5 percent of parents agreed, at least somewhat, that use of placebo in clinical trials is vital for advancing new treatments.
  • 86 percent of parents felt that giving their child a placebo is acceptable in some clinical care situations, while 5.7 percent said the use of placebos in children is always unacceptable.
  • 5 percent agreed that placebos can cause physical changes in the body; another 32.8 percent “somewhat” agreed with this statement. In total, 83 percent believed a person’s mind can affect their health.
  • While 80 percent agreed that taking advantage of the placebo response could improve children’s care, 96.5 percent felt it imperative to create ethical guidelines around this practice.
  • 52 percent felt it inacceptable for doctors to prescribe a placebo while calling it a real drug.
  • 71 percent found it unacceptable not to explain that the treatment is a placebo.

When parents were given a list of 17 conditions, a majority considered placebo acceptable for only seven: the common cold, ear infection, occasional pain, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, sleep disturbance and ADHD.

Should kids know the truth? Or just parents?

The study had a number of limitations. Parents responding to the survey were mostly white, half were college graduates and nearly all of their children were in good health. Also, the survey didn’t distinguish between disclosing to parents versus disclosing to children that a treatment is placebo. So it’s possible parents might want the truth, but prefer to let their kids believe they’re receiving an active drug.

Faria believes the survey indicates the need for guidelines to support parents in deciding whether to agree to placebo use, and the need for transparency, at least with parents. “Open-label placebo seems to be a promising adjuvant therapy with the potential to improve pediatric care, as acknowledged by the great majority of the parents we surveyed,” she says. “Future studies should continue to investigate its therapeutic role.”

David Borsook, MD, PhD, co-director of the Center for Pain and the Brain, was senior author on the paper. Co-authors were Joe Kossowsky, PhD, Ted J. Kaptchuk, Irving Kirsch, PhD, and Alyssa Lebel, MD, PhD, of Boston Children’s Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, and Mike Petkov of the Center for Pain and the Brain. Faria, Kaptchuk, Kirsch and Kossowsky are also affiliated with the Program in Placebo Studies at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.