Feasibility of surgical randomised controlled trials with a placebo arm: a systematic review

K. Wartolowska, G.S. Collins, S. Hopewell, Andy Judge, B.J. Dean, I. Rombach, D.J. Beard, A.J. Carr

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To find evidence, either corroborating or refuting, for many persisting beliefs regarding the feasibility of carrying out surgical randomised controlled trials with a placebo arm, with emphasis on the challenges related to recruitment, funding, anaesthesia or blinding.Systematic review.The analysis involved studies published between 1959 and 2014 that were identified during an earlier systematic review of benefits and harms of placebo-controlled surgical trials published in 2014.63 trials were included in the review. The main problem reported in many trials was a very slow recruitment rate, mainly due to the difficulty in finding eligible patients. Existing placebo trials were funded equally often from commercial and non-commercial sources. General anaesthesia or sedation was used in 41% of studies. Among the reviewed trials, 81% were double-blinded, and 19% were single-blinded. Across the reviewed trials, 96% (range 50-100%) of randomised patients completed the study. The withdrawal rate during the study was similar in the surgical and in the placebo groups.This review demonstrated that placebo-controlled surgical trials are feasible, at least for procedures with a lower level of invasiveness, but also that recruitment is difficult. Many of the presumed challenges to undertaking such trials, for example, funding, anaesthesia or blinding of patients and assessors, were not reported as obstacles to completion in any of the reviewed trials.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere010194
Number of pages9
JournalBMJ Open
Issue number3
Early online date15 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


  • Humans
  • Placebos
  • Anesthesia, General
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative
  • Feasibility Studies
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


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