How to Sell Snake Oil — and Health Tech!

By Michelle Sou

Michelle Sou, Fung Fellow, and Jaspal Sandhu, Faculty Lead, at SNIN.

If you’re a trivia nut, you might already know the history behind the phrase, “snake oil salesman”- but what do you really know about snake oil?

In early November, at the Safety Net Innovation Network conference hosted by Center for Care Innovations (CCI), 107 people from 54 different organizations from across the country came together to learn the secret behind the success of snake oil salesmen.

Snake oil was traditionally used as a powerful medicine to ease inflamed joints after a long day of hard physical labor and even touted to treat arthritis and bursitis. This medicinal innovation was brought to the United States from Chinese railroad workers who would rub the oil on their joints after a backbreaking workday in the late 1800s, according to NPR podcast Code Switch.

Advertisement for Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment.

As word of its powerful effects spread, Americans began exploring how to profit from this innovation without having access to the key ingredient: a distinct omega-3 acids from Chinese water snakes. As these snakes were nowhere to be found, they attempted to emulate its medicinal power by making rattlesnake oil instead. Unfortunately, rattlesnakes did not contain the same omega-3 acids that reduces inflammation. At this large discrepancy, the potential for innovation took a turn for the worse.

Despite questionable effectiveness, American snake oil was quickly advertised as a cure-all, a remedy or elixir to solve all ills and pains. In reality, this Americanized product had around the same medicinal effect as modern-day chest rubs. When the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 — which would help pave the way for the later formation of the FDA — sought to crack down on patent medicines and investigated snake oil, they found that many of the products on the market did not contain any snake oil at all. Since then, snake oil and snake oil salesmen have been associated with deceit and fraud.

Despite the controversy, snake oil persisted to be a popular medicine backed by pseudo-science. The large sales success of snake oil is largely attributed to the skillful persuasive powers of snake oil salesmen.

What does this have to do with innovation, much less healthy behaviors and health technology?

Guest speaker and workshop facilitator, Ed Tori, D.O., of the MedStar Institute for Innovation, explained the need for highly skilled influencers, people who, like snake-oil salesmen, could persuade people. He argued that a skilled influencer with the wrong intentions, like a con artist or an enabler of bad habits, could dramatically change the course of a person’s life. Similarly, an unskilled influencer with good intentions, like a doctor with poor bedside manner, could also change the course of a person’s life for the worse.

However, healthcare providers and innovation directors would be unstoppable if they could channel their good intentions into powerful influence.

In Dr. Tori’s workshop, participants utilized various sales techniques to practice skills in influencing desired behaviors by playing the game — you guessed it — ‘Snake Oil.’ An Apples-to-Apples-like game, one person in the group of five would act as the customer and draw a green card to determine who they would be representing: a zombie, a senior citizen, a prom queen. Everyone else in the group would compete to be the best snake oil salesperson and draw five cards from the purple deck. From these they would combine two into a product to “sell” to the customer. The “snake oil salesmen” whose persuasive tactics won over the customer would win a point towards victory.

Cards from the game ‘Snake Oil’.

So yes — realistically, we don’t need to spend our time practicing pitching leg hammers for zombies or safety net providers. Health innovation directors aren’t going to be selling freedom hair or giggle goggles to their senior citizen patients. These skills to persuade people, however, are imperative because, as we know, promoting desired behaviors isn’t always easy.

As a Fung Fellow, the past year-and-a-half building skills to design, develop, and prototype technology to promote the health and wellbeing of youth, veterans, and older adults would be useless without the skills to pitch our innovations. We can convince ourselves of our good intentions and our amazing product design, but if we can’t promote it to our population, what’s the point? Without the buy-in of our customers, we would be no better than a doctor with poor bedside manner.

And isn’t promoting healthy behaviors one big sales pitch for the other person’s own good? Isn’t utilizing a certain innovation to increase efficiency or efficacy of a program one giant marketing tool to improve one’s influence on better patient care?

Technology in healthcare, at the end of the day, is meant to influence desired behaviors — drug adherence, healthcare access, preventative care utilization- in the community served. The good intentions are there, we just need to bump up the skills to better influence people. As Dr. Tori says, “change moods and the mind follows”. Change minds, and the body follows.

Michelle Sou is a Public Health Major from San Gabriel, CA. When she’s not at the Fung Fellowship, she is a Neighborhood Collaborations Assistant at East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC). Her area of focus is community development and its intersection with health and housing.