Sham Surgery: A Look at Placebo’s with Seth Godin


Today’s post comes after a great piece by the best selling author, Seth Godin and surgeon Ian Harris. In his groundbreaking book, “Surgery, the Ultimate Placebo“, Harris finds that sham surgeries have been proven to show benefits. A 2014 review showed that of 53 trials, 74% of sham surgeries provide some benefit while 50% worked as well as an actual surgery.

What is a Sham Surgery?

These are fake operations where patients are led to believe they are having a real surgical procedure done. This means they are taken through all the regular pre-and post- surgical operations. This includes fasting, anesthesia and even have incisions made in the skin. The Five Thirty Eight article even cites that in some cases, the patient is awake during the “sham surgery” and is shown a video of someone’s else procedure as if it was their own.

If your thinking these sound super unethical, you are right to believe so. The name pretty much has the word, sham. But surprisingly their done with the patients’ consent when trials are done.

Findings of the Study and What it Means

To understand the topic more thoroughly, I encourage you to read the Five Thirty Eight article. I’ve summarized the findings quickly below.

  • There’s an effective placebo when it comes to believing that you’re having a surgery to cure pain or sickness
  • A surgery’s invasiveness can also explain the strength of the placebo. The more invasive, the strong the placebo
  • Even an ineffective surgery may seem helpful as chronic pain can peak and wanes

What If Your Patient Isn’t Human

The ritual and promise of a surgery is a huge placebo when it comes to making one feel better. For pet owners who are concerned about their loved ones getting better, its just as important to create that sense of healing and pain relief.

Though in this case the patient is not the client, but rather their pet, there still is a lot that goes into creating the impression that a high quality of medical work is being done.

In our study of 1 star Yelp reviews, we found many 1 star reviews about physical exams.

Many users complained that they waited for an extended period of time. Once they finally got into the examination room, the veterinarian came in and didn’t even touch their pet.

Though physical exams may be one of the most routine, minor activities, to many owners, it is the pinnacle of ensuring their pet’s health. You need to create the impression that an intense, thorough job has been done.

In his book, The Art of Veterinary Practice Management, Mark Opperman writes to use an exam-room report card. The report card “outlines the steps the veterinarian took during the physical exam and emphasizes that the pet received thorough medical attention.

It’s just like wearing the white coat. The second it is on, the respect and attention of the patient is at 100%

Creating that Placebo for a Better Customer Experience

Just like the sham surgery, all the rituals and operations before and after the surgery are just as important as the surgery itself. This is especially true when it comes to creating that impression with the patient.

Consumers want to know that whatever they are paying for, they are getting the full experience.

This is especially true for medical treatment. Of course, there are many consumers who want to pay the absolute bare minimum, however that does not change the fact that the product/service you give must seem complete.

Those who want to bargain and penny pinch want to do so with a complete product/service. But I don’t want to pay too much attention to those money grabbing patients. Let’s discuss those who are ready and willing to invest in their pet’s health.

A Better Customer Experience Brings Better Customers

A better product brings more customers who are willing to pay. Look no further than Coach, Tiffany’s and Apple and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Customers of these brands want these products because of the quality of the products, the status that comes with these brands and also the overall experience of having the product.

Thus, you never see anyone trying to haggle with any of these brands about price. And if you try, good luck with that.

In the same fashion, your clinic must command that same kind of brand if you want to be attracting the best customers who are ready and willing to invest whatever is needed for the best care.

But before you can start bumping up prices and expect everyone to be ready and willing, you need to first ensure that your clinic is providing the best service in the area.

This also means, the placebo of your customer experience has to be there as well.

If you do honestly provide the best medical care and your team is unrivaled when it comes to expertise and care, it doesn’t mean diddly squat if your consumers don’t perceive it.

Thus its important to analyze every touch point with the consumer and identify if your practice is staying on top. These include:

  • Practice website
  • Waiting room
  • Examination Room
  • Look and friendliness of the staff
  • Exterior and Signage of the practice
  • Literature going home, etc.

Grab a list together and start tracking all the other practices in the area. Ensure that you at each touch point your clinic is providing a superior experience. Of course, there are some things you can’t readily change, for example your real estate. However, you want to address everything that you can. Visit our digital marketing company today.


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Ron Arellano
Ron Arellano
President of Search Business Group, Ron is a Healthcare Business Consultant, Digital Marketer, Award-Winning Senior Creative Director Who Loves UX/UI, Web, SEO, Data, and Animals.

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