Are You Selling Snake Oil?

More than twenty years ago, I developed Michigan’s first broad-based hospital quality comparison reports incorporating local market peer data.  Using software from The Sachs Group and a severity adjustment methodology called Disease Staging, my organization collected patient-record level data and produced local comparison reports.

Unfortunately for this project (and for me), a highly qualified epidemiologist with great clinical and statistical expertise employed by one of the local hospitals took a strong disliking to this project.  In fact he went nuclear, correctly pointing out the limitations of the data and methodologies.  He concluded that, even though we positioned the product as being an “indicator” and not a definitive measurement, the results were useless and, in fact, dangerous.  Before throwing me out of his office, he accused me of selling snake oil.  This was not the highlight of my career.

He then made it his mission in life to discredit the program.  He assured that his hospital didn’t participate in the project, but fortunately nearly two dozen others did.  And I’m glad to report that participants appreciated the program, which they said provided a helpful starting point for further investigation (which is exactly how we billed it).

Recently, James Madara, the current American Medical Association CEO, delivered scathing remarks about some of the newer manifestations of healthcare technology, using the dreaded “snake oil” attribution.  “From ineffective electronic health records (EHR), to an explosion of direct-to-consumer digital health products, to apps of mixed quality, this is the digital snake oil of the early 21st century.”  Not what you want to hear if you are in the emerging digital technology business.  But you need to be aware that this sentiment is out there, at least in some circles.

Here are two lessons to learn from reactions like my friend’s and Dr. Madara’s:

First, recognize that credibility is paramount for any health tech product that touches on patient care.  If your offering gets within two miles of claiming clinical insights, you must do two things: 

  • Provide whatever documentable, research-based evidence you can.
    • Be humble about your product.  Under no circumstances should you make claims that you cannot back up 100%.

Secondly, anticipate that you might meet up with a new incarnation of my Michigan friend.  Here are three suggestions, should you find yourself in this predicament:

  • By all means treat your opponent with the respect that he or she deserves.  If they have a clinical background, they are well-educated and probably have a good deal of science on their side. 
  • While admitting the limitations of your product, point to other advantages such as operational or business-related insights it offers.
    • Look for someone else in the organization who supports your product to take up the mantle internally   The more connected with the organization’s key leaders that person is the better.

You may not be able to avoid someone who considers you Satan personified, but you can at least anticipate the possibility and think through how to respond.  Forewarned is forearmed