September 9, 2019

Groupon is now selling CT scans. Is that 'bonkers'?

Daily Briefing

    As the debate around health care prices continues, some providers are turning to Groupon to get new patients in the door with deals on health care services—a trend that has persisted despite the industry's efforts to move away from volume-driven care.

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    A coupon for CT scans?

    Groupon, a coupon website that sells discounts for anything from restaurant meals to fitness classes, isn't exactly a conventional player in the health care industry—but it's not an entirely new player either, Kaiser Health News' Lauren Weber reports.

    The deals first became popular between 2011 and 2013, when websites like Groupon were at peak popularity, Weber reports. Although the online coupon industry "has since lost some steam," patients today can still find Groupon deals for everything from ultrasounds to heart scans and full-body CT-scans, Weber reports.

    According to Weber, the continued use of health care-related Groupons and other pricing tools is "symptomatic of a health care market where patients desperately want a deal—or at least tools that better nail down their costs before they get care."

    The debate over Groupon's market effects

    However, Groupon's use also continues to spark debate in the health care industry, with some providers saying the deals offer patients affordable services while giving providers a way to attract new patients, and others saying the deals risk increasing unnecessary tests, Weber reports.

    In a recent tweet, Nicole Herbst, a medical fellow at Emory University, shared the shock, and ultimately acceptance, she experienced when three patients visited to review abnormal CT scans they'd had done using a Groupon.

    Other providers who saw Herbst's post on Twitter expressed similar sentiments. "The concept of patients using Groupons to get discounted medical care elicited the typical stages of Twitter grief: anger, bargaining and acceptance that this is the medical system today in the United States," Weber wrote.

    Steven Howard, head of Saint Louis University's health administration program, said Groupon enables providers to meet patients where they are and serves as a good marketing tool. "Whether or not a person may philosophically agree that medicine is a business, it is a market," he said.

    For instance, Crown Valley Imaging in California, has been selling Groupon deals since 2017, even though Groupon takes a steep user fee, according to Crown Valley's president, Sami Beydoun. "They take about half. It's kind of brutal," he said. "But the way I look at it is you're getting decent marketing."

    OutPatient Imaging in Atlanta about six months ago began offering a $99 Groupon for mammograms, as well as Groupons for body scans and other screenings to compete with local centers, according to Brittany Swanson, an employee at the center. According to Swanson, the Groupons have attracted hundreds of customers and also serve as a safety net for uninsured patients.  

    Howard noted that the deals also can serve as an affordable option to fill insurance gaps, such as for dental care.

    However, others argue that Groupon deals could " signal that volume—not value—is the driving force in the business of health care," according to Axios.

    Andrew Bierhals, a radiology safety expert at Washington University in St. Louis' Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, warned that Groupons and similar discounted medical service deals could increase unnecessary scans. "If you're going to have any type of medical testing done, I would make sure you discuss with your primary care provider or practitioner," he said.

    "Everybody loves to talk about value and patient-centered care and the right care in the right context and so on. But Groupons are not the sign of a system that's trying very hard to do any of those things," Axios reports. "They're a sign of a system that still rewards doing more stuff, whether it's necessary or not" (Baker, Axios, 9/5; Weber, Kaiser Health News, 9/6).

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