Bioethics Blogs

Randomised placebo-controlled trials of surgery: ethical analysis and guidelines

Guest Post: Karolina Wartolowska

Paper [OPEN ACCESS]: Randomised placebo-controlled trials of surgery: ethical analysis and guidelines

Surgical placebo-controlled randomised controlled trials are, in many ways, like placebo-controlled drug trials. Like in case of drug trials, sometimes, a placebo-controlled design is necessary so that the results are valid and unbiased. Placebo control is usually necessary when a surgical trial has only subjective outcomes. This is often the case, because many surgeries are done to relieve pain and improve function. Validating the efficacy of a surgery in a well-designed trial helps to improve clinical practice. If the procedure is ineffective it should be discontinued and less risky treatment should be used instead. It also demonstrates the need for new effective interventions. But if the surgery is effective the resources should be allocated to the better intervention. If efficacy of intervention is never tested, many patients may be exposed to risks associated with a surgery but do not get any real benefits.  They also do not get other treatment, which may provide similar benefits without the risks and costs associated with surgery.

Surgical placebo-controlled randomised controlled trials may be undertaken in an ethical way. Firstly, there needs to be “equipoise”. In other words, there should be uncertainty, lack of strong evidence and lack of agreement among the clinicians whether the investigated surgery is effective or whether it is better than conservative treatment.  If there is equipoise, there is no true “best treatment” which can be recommended to the patient. Secondly, there should be some preliminary evidence that the surgery works (form animal studies, open-label trials).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.