A Proposed Road Map for the Ethical Evaluation of Sham (Placebo) Surgery

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Abstract

Objective:

The study proposes a possible roadmap for the ethical assessment of sham surgery clinical trials (CTs), focusing on methodological aspects, as a result of the lack of this type of practical tool in the literature/practice.

Background:

Surgical procedures are frequently conducted without closely controlled studies. For this reason, these procedures are less rigorous than those for drug/device clinical trials. The aim of a sham (placebo) surgery CT is to carry out a surgical CT with a legitimate control group. The use of sham surgery is controversial from an ethical point of view.

Methods:

This evaluation system is set up according to ICH/GCP, World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki, CONSORT 2010 standards. The proposed roadmap is based on the following 4 steps/levels: safety/clinical indications; adequacy of trial methodology/design adopted for a sham surgery CT; specific informed consent, and economic issues.

Results:

A flowchart is proposed which can be used at two levels: as a basic guideline for the design of a surgical protocol representing a benchmark level of care; and a multiaxial assessment considering the first two sources of morality of human acts according to Aristotelian ethics: the object of the act (step 1) and some of its circumstances (steps 2–4).

Conclusions:

The use of a placebo and of double-blind control groups in surgery CTs would improves the quality of results, providing that an accurate ethical assessment procedure is in place, firstly to ensure patient safety and secondly to prevent abuses/procedural biases. Future testing of the proposed flowchart is outlined.

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