Background: Non-specific effect of acupuncture constitutes part of the overall effect generated via clinical encounter beyond needle insertion and stimulation. It is unclear how responders and non-responders of acupuncture experience non-specific effects differently. We aimed to compare their experiences in a nested qualitative study embedded in an acupuncture randomized trial on functional dyspepsia.
Methods: Purposive sampling was used to capture experience of responders (n=15) and non-responders (n=15) to acupuncture via individual in-depth interviews. Design and analysis followed a framework analysis approach, with reference to an existing model on acupuncture non-specific effects. Themes emerging outside of this model were purposefully explored.
Results: Responders had a more trusting relationship with acupuncturist in response to their expression of empathy. In turn they were more actively engaged in lifestyle modifications and dietary advice offered by acupuncturists. Non-responders were not satisfied with the level of reassurance regarding acupuncture safety. They were also expecting more peer support from fellow participants, regarded that as an empowerment process for initiating and sustaining lifestyle changes.
Conclusions: Our results highlighted key differences in acupuncture non-specific effect components experienced by responders and non-responders. Positive non-specific effects contributing to overall benefits could be enhanced by emphasizing on empathy expression from acupuncturists, trust-building, offering appropriate explanations on safety, and organizing patient support groups. Further research on the relative importance of each component is warranted.