Optimizing the design of invasive placebo interventions in randomized controlled trials

Sian E Cousins*, Natalie S Blencowe, Carmen Tsang, Katy A Chalmers, Ameen Mardanpour, Andrew Carr, Marion K Campbell, Jonathan Cook, David Beard, Jane M Blazeby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
41 Downloads (Pure)


Placebo‐controlled trials play an important role in the evaluation of healthcare interventions. However, they can be challenging to design and deliver for invasive interventions, including surgery. In‐depth understanding of the component parts of the treatment intervention is needed to ascertain what should, and should not, be delivered as part of the placebo. Assessment of risk to patients and strategies to ensure that the placebo effectively mimics the treatment are also required. To date, no guidance exists for the design of invasive placebo interventions. This study aimed to develop a framework to optimize the design and delivery of invasive placebo interventions in RCTs.

A preliminary framework was developed using published literature to: expand the scope of an existing typology, which facilitates the deconstruction of invasive interventions; and identify placebo optimization strategies. The framework was refined after consultation with key stakeholders in surgical trials, consensus methodology and medical ethics.

The resulting DITTO framework consists of five stages: deconstruct treatment intervention into constituent components and co‐interventions; identify critical surgical element(s); take out the critical element(s); think risk, feasibility and role of placebo in the trial when considering remaining components; and optimize placebo to ensure effective blinding of patients and trial personnel.

DITTO considers invasive placebo composition systematically, accounting for risk, feasibility and placebo optimization. Use of the framework can support the design of high‐quality RCTs, which are needed to underpin delivery of healthcare interventions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1114-1122
Number of pages9
JournalBritish Journal of Surgery
Issue number9
Early online date18 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jul 2020

Structured keywords

  • Physical and Mental Health


  • placebo
  • invasive procedures
  • surgery
  • methodology


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