Placebo comparator group selection and use in surgical trials: the ASPIRE project including expert workshop

David J Beard, Marion K Campbell, Jane M Blazeby, Andrew J Carr, Charles Weijer, Brian H Cuthbertson, Rachelle Buchbinder, Thomas Pinkney, Felicity L Bishop, Jonathan Pugh, Sian Cousins, Ian Harris, L Stefan Lohmander, Natalie Blencowe, Katie Gillies, Pascal Probst, Carol Brennan, Andrew Cook, Dair Farrar-Hockley, Julian SavulescuRichard Huxtable, Amar Rangan, Irene Tracey, Peter Brocklehurst, Manuela L Ferreira, Jon Nicholl, Barnaby C Reeves, Freddie Hamdy, Samuel Cs Rowley, Naomi Lee, Jonathan A Cook

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Abstract

BACKGROUND: The use of placebo comparisons for randomised trials assessing the efficacy of surgical interventions is increasingly being considered. However, a placebo control is a complex type of comparison group in the surgical setting and, although powerful, presents many challenges.

OBJECTIVES: To provide a summary of knowledge on placebo controls in surgical trials and to summarise any recommendations for designers, evaluators and funders of placebo-controlled surgical trials.

DESIGN: To carry out a state-of-the-art workshop and produce a corresponding report involving key stakeholders throughout.

SETTING: A workshop to discuss and summarise the existing knowledge and to develop the new guidelines.

RESULTS: To assess what a placebo control entails and to assess the understanding of this tool in the context of surgery is considered, along with when placebo controls in surgery are acceptable (and when they are desirable). We have considered ethics arguments and regulatory requirements, how a placebo control should be designed, how to identify and mitigate risk for participants in these trials, and how such trials should be carried out and interpreted. The use of placebo controls is justified in randomised controlled trials of surgical interventions provided that there is a strong scientific and ethics rationale. Surgical placebos might be most appropriate when there is poor evidence for the efficacy of the procedure and a justified concern that results of a trial would be associated with a high risk of bias, particularly because of the placebo effect.

CONCLUSIONS: The use of placebo controls is justified in randomised controlled trials of surgical interventions provided that there is a strong scientific and ethics rationale. Feasibility work is recommended to optimise the design and implementation of randomised controlled trials. An outline for best practice was produced in the form of the Applying Surgical Placebo in Randomised Evaluations (ASPIRE) guidelines for those considering the use of a placebo control in a surgical randomised controlled trial.

LIMITATIONS: Although the workshop participants involved international members, the majority of participants were from the UK. Therefore, although every attempt was made to make the recommendations applicable to all health systems, the guidelines may, unconsciously, be particularly applicable to clinical practice in the UK NHS.

FUTURE WORK: Future work should evaluate the use of the ASPIRE guidelines in making decisions about the use of a placebo-controlled surgical trial. In addition, further work is required on the appropriate nomenclature to adopt in this space.

FUNDING: Funded by the Medical Research Council UK and the National Institute for Health Research as part of the Medical Research Council-National Institute for Health Research Methodology Research programme.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-52
Number of pages52
JournalHealth Technology Assessment
Volume25
Issue number53
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sep 2021

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