The active ingredients of placebo effects: Q&A with Ted Kaptchuk

Ted Kaptchuk, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, directs the Program in Placebo Studies, Healing and Therapeutic Encounter. In his TEDMED talk, he upended many assumptions about what really works in the therapeutic encounter, and what doesn’t, as revealed in placebo research. We caught up with Ted to learn more.


What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

My research has implication for the general public.  I want to disseminate the results of my scientific inquiries and encourage patients and the public to demand that health care acknowledge them and their implications for the therapeutic encounter.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

Health care has become increasingly expensive and dehumanized.  Placebo effects are relatively inexpensive and add humanity (engagement, words and honesty) back into the mix.   I hope my talk will educate the public and encourage people to expect and demand a health care that acknowledges the importance of the human element.  I also hope that health care providers– nurses, physicians, allied health care clinicians, complementary medical practitioners, etc– see that their role as more than using effective interventions, but also a participant involved in a process. Placebo effects tell us, especially for chronic diseases, what the health care provider does actually matters. Symptoms are relieved and the course of illness changes…depending on this interaction. In situations where there are already good drugs and treatments, these interventions become more effective. In situations where there are no good treatments available, the health care provider, by their interactions, can make things better. The placebo effect is about releasing and harnessing powers inherent in the clinical encounter in order to expand what healing is about. Placebo effects are always present. The study of placebo effects encourages patients to expect improvement and encourage clinicians to know that they can always make a difference with engagement, words and honesty. These ideas are too important to disregard. The time is now.

What were your top 3 TEDMED 2014 talks?

Betsy Nabel from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital for discussing humility. Carl Hart for being an inspiration about how to face challenges. Emery Brown for expanding what we know about consciousness.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

I had several discussions with speakers and participants that I am pursuing in relationship to collaborations and dissemination of research. I’ve invited several people to speak at Harvard and have been invited to speak at various institutions.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I hope that others scientists will see the possibility of pursuing careers investigating the context of healing and its neurobiological underpinning. I hope practitioners will get smarter about what is going on in the therapeutic encounter. I hope patients will set a higher bar in what to expect in health care.

Any advice you have for the TEDMED community?

Demand better health care. Don’t tolerate a clinician with whom you don’t feel bonded (unless it is something like he/she is the only surgeon who can do a particular surgery.) A clinician should make you feel good about visiting them. Don’t accept less.