Incorporating conditioned placebo response into treatment plans to improve access to medicine in least developed countries

Access to treatment is one of the biggest challenges facing global medicine today. In least developed countries (LDCs), many patients are left with the choice of paying the high- price of private-sector medications or forgoing treatment (World Health Organization (WHO), 2010). But as many poorer patients do not have the money for expensive private medications, their access to treatment is dependent upon the thinly-spread public healthcare system - if there actually is one in their country (WHO, 2010). Governments and ‘big-pharma’ are often blamed for the lack of access to affordable medication in LDCs. And various initiatives have been tried to confront this angle, although relatively little impact has been made so far (Anon., 2014). But, what if there is a simple and novel solution to this problem? Recent research has shown that placebo responses of equal efficacy to active drugs can be obtained, and temporarily sustained, following a brief period of conditioning (Benedetti, 2016). If this was integrated into treatment plans, it has the potential to significantly reduce the demand for drugs and to vastly improve access to treatment in developing countries. Whilst there are obviously many ethical considerations, further exploration of the potential benefits should be made in an effort to improve treatment access in LDCs.

In this essay, I shall first discuss the scale of the access to medicine problem and why current initiatives have not worked. I will then outline the basic principles of conditioned placebo response and describe how it could be developed for application in global medicine. Next I will discuss the ethical implications and how we can tackle these issues with stringent testing. Finally, I shall amalgamate all these elements to demonstrate the potential of this approach to upgrade access to medicine.

1.5-minute visualisation of Nicholson's disruptive idea

The scale of the problem

According to the (WHO 2016), the mean life expectancy of developed countries is 80.9 years, in great contrast to that of LDCs of just 63.4 years - 17.5 years less. Much of this disparity extends from access to medicine. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimate that one third of the world’s population do not have access to essential medication increasing to 50% of the population in the LDCs of Africa and Asia (MSF, 2014). MSF and various other organisations have had significant impact upon access to medicine in LDCs, by directing medical research towards LDC relevant drugs and by taking action to protect against corporate interests. Now, pharmaceutical companies have tiered pricing structures for LDCs and donation schemes have been set up (Anon., 2014). In addition, the Doha Agreement gave LDCs the right to purchase manufacturing licenses to produce generic forms of vital drugs. But these interventions, have not got near to solving the problem. The biggest disappointment was the Doha Agreement which may have been

successful if more LDCs had pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities and if public healthcare was more of a priority to some LDC governments (Bosely, 2003). Therefore access to medicine is a continuing problem in need of a novel solution. So far, most approaches have not been adequately scaleable, or depend heavily on government and pharmaceutical cooperation. The introduction of conditioned placebo response into treatment plans is a more independent approach, requiring primarily just the cooperation of medical professionals and patients to improve treatment access in LDCs. Helping the same amount of drugs, to go further.

Access to medicine is a continuing problem in need of a novel solution.
Nicholson presenting her disruptive idea to senior corporate leaders from ABB, Accenture, Swiss Re, and ZF Group at the #47sgs on 3 May 2017

Conditioned placebo response and its application to global medicine

Benedetti is arguably the world expert on mechanisms of the placebo effect, with very few other people conducting research in the field. His recent paper 'Teaching neurons to respond to placebos' (2016) is just the latest of a vast body of work that seeks to define the exact mechanisms behind the placebo effect. His recent paper looked at patients with Parkinson’s disease, measuring their placebo response after various periods of conditioning. He found that receiving four injections of the active drug over four days, adequately conditioned patients to respond clinically and neuronally to a single placebo, as if it were the active drug. It was found that this effect lasted for over 24 hours, and with the administration of another placebo, it continued for another 24 hours. The study did not assess the duration of effects beyond 48 hours, but if the conditioned placebo response is limited to 48 hours, it still has great potential.

Further tests need to be done, to understand if a greater period of conditioning would lead to a more sustained placebo response. And whether alternating the conditioning and placebo periods over time leads to renewed effects. If this is the case, then active drugs could be given to patients for four days, with a two day placebo period, alleviating the pressure on drug supplies, by reducing their need. To best apply this to global medicine, it will also be necessary to explore this with patients with a range of other diseases, to see if it would continue to be applicable to diseases more common in LDCs.

 Resolving ethical conflicts

As stated previously, there are several ethical considerations that would need to be resolved in order to introduce conditioned placebo response to treatment plans. These issues involve ensuring efficacy, ensuring just evaluation of treatment (WHO, 2015) and quantifying the benefit/loss ratio. Our most natural response to the possibility of giving placebo conditioning to LDCs is that we immediately feel it is immoral to do so. Jumping to concern for exploiting LDCs and introducing deception into global medicine. We feel that our developed countries should value people of LDCs equally and not provide them with any treatment less than what we would use ourselves. However, whilst these perspectives are certainly valid, they may not actually be relevant concerns.

Firstly, on the point of deception, various studies have shown that patients can be told that they are taking a placebo and that they will still experience response (Blease, 2016). This is particularly true of conditioned placebo response as it does not appear to require conscious anticipation to work. This has been demonstrated by several studies involving mice who receive medication in saccharine sweetened water. After the medication is removed, they continue to respond to the saccharine flavour as if it were the active medication (Ader, 1975). Therefore, deception does not necessarily need to be involved, although the best options still need to be tested regarding this and the efficacy of placebo in global medicine.

Currently research into the incorporation of placebo response into Primary Care in more economically developed countries is being undertaken at various locations in the UK (Southampton, Nottingham, Oxford). Therefore, exploring the incorporation of placebo into treatments in LDCs would not necessarily demonstrate that we might value their lives as less than our own. We do deem placebos an adequate tool to explore for our own treatment, so therefore if we hold similar standards for LDCs we should be able to explore the possibility of placebo treatments in global medicine too. However, it is important to consider that diseases common in LDCs are not as common in our own countries, and if we were to suffer from them similarly, we may not deem placebo treatments adequate. Therefore, we must ensure that the risks, benefits and cost is calculated as it would be in our own countries. In the UK, before a treatment is made available on the NHS, the treatment is evaluated against the current treatments available, the risks and benefits of the treatment to the patient and the financial cost (Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, 2015). Whilst, putting financial value on human life or quality life is understandably uncomfortable, it is a necessary measure that is done around the world. As there is no ‘Global Health Service’, and such measures are controlled largely at a national level, the evaluation must be done in light of the situation within the countries the treatment is proposed for. So, when evaluating the placebo treatment against the current treatment available, it must be considered that for many people, there simply may not be any treatment available. For many, it could be placebo treatment or no treatment. The cost and associated risks of placebos are negligible as there are no active ingredients. Therefore, considering the treatment evaluation methods in more developed countries, providing that placebo treatments are more effective than no treatment, and that they do not harm the patient, they should be considered for use in global medicine where treatment access in particularly poor.

Placebo treatment should be considered for use in global medicine where treatment access in particularly poor.


Clearly, much research would need to be undertaken to clarify the efficacy of the placebo-integrated treatments and how they could be employed for the benefit of global health. However, given the potential benefits of incorporating conditioning in treatments plans, in global medicine, it is an area that should certainly be explored. Where there is little or no access to medicine, anything that could improve quality or length of life should be an area to be explored. If these methods can be used to reduce the demand for active medication in LDCs there is the potential, that many more people could receive treatments, not just those who can afford it.

Nicholson developed the idea in the light of the St. Gallen Symposium's global student essay competition, the St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award. Her idea made it into the semi-finals of the competition and, hence, she got the chance to test the idea at the 47th St. Gallen Symposium (3–5 May 2017) with 200 Leaders of Tomorrow and with senior leaders of global corporations. This experience gave her courage to continue working on the idea. In July 2017, Nicholson founded Yekize and she is now looking for any kind of support from people with experience in healthcare, global medicine, policy, research, marketing, fundraising, and anyone who has experienced issues relating to access to medicine. Nicholson can be contacted via, the following video presents the concept of Yekize.


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