Your Health, 50 Percent Off

Some social sites offer a path to discounted health services.

Oct. 18, 2011— -- Everyone likes a good deal. Fifty-percent off dinner? Yes, please. Forty percent off a massage? Of course.

But what about 50 percent off a flu vaccine or bone density test?

Discount service sites are offering an increasing array of health services, and not just Botox.

Sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial are known for their "daily deals" for things to do, see or get locally. Groupon, which launched in 2008, offers deals in 43 countries; while LivingSocial has "603 daily deal markets worldwide," according to its website.

Fran Miller, 61, of Northern Virginia recently bought a LivingSocial for 50 percent off her annual flu shot at Inova Health System in Northern Virginia.

"Most of the time I am looking for lunch, not necessarily medical procedures," Miller said. "I guess if there is something I'm interested in and I thought the provider was competent, I would consider it."

And her flu shot fit the bill.

"I would have gotten a flu shot anyway and have historically gotten one, and this was less expensive and located right in my community," Miller said.

Dr. Loring Flint, Inova's chief medical officer, said, "Flu season is upon us, and we'd like to prevent, as much as possible, the threat of a serious flu season this year. We discussed various ways to make sure folks had access to the flu vaccine [and] we have a number of new practices and with a very creative marketing department always challenging us to do things differently, why not go to social media and see if this is something worthwhile?"

Both LivingSocial and Groupon declined to comment; Groupon because of the quiet period surrounding its initial public stock offering.

Vaccinations are not the only medical procedures offered at 50 percent off. Dentists are getting into the game with discounts on teeth cleaning, whitening, braces and veneers. One Virginia health clinic recently offered 50 percent off a bone-density test for osteoporosis. Even plastic surgeons offering minimally invasive liposuction and breast augmentations are offering daily deals.

"We would be losing money if we only did one area," Dr. Michael Carter, a non-plastic surgeon physician in Atlanta who offered more than 60 percent off minimally invasive liposuction, said. "But the vast majority of the people need and-or desire more than one area, so it can be made up for in the up-sell of another area."

For Dr. Catherine Foote, a private practice orthodontist in Bryn Mawr, Pa., who offered more than 50 percent off Invisalign removable teeth aligners, this is the first time she used a daily deal site.

"We are a really young practice," Foote said. " It was really just a test, from a growth standpoint, growing a business. I hope the people that do come in, enjoy the experience, like the office and tell their friends and family."

But while doctors who enlist the use of discount websites to offer their services see it as a marketing tool, Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine at Dartmouth, believes consumers should use caution when considering purchasing a health product from a discount site.

"In health care, the question is a little more sophisticated. It's, 'Will I benefit from this?'" he said. "We had snake oil salesman for more than a 100 years. I think people have to be really careful about ... very standard and familiar marketing techniques for health. The consumer needs to be pretty cautious."

Welch added that he believed consumers should realize that "the primary interest here is for someone to make money and that may not meet your interest as the patient. ... Be more skeptical, and just because the price is lower doesn't mean it's better."

Whether there will be more medical procedures offered at discount rates remains to be seen, although some doctors, such as surgeon Carter, think it's going to become more commonplace.

"Especially in this economy, where things are a bit more depressed and there is more competition for smaller potential patient database," Carter said. "Not a lot of people are looking at procedures that are a luxury item. So the cosmetic surgeon and plastic surgeons are competing for a smaller group of people who can afford what we provide."

All of the physicians agreed that when a consumer is purchasing a discount deal, it is important for them to know who is providing the service, and, as Miller of Northern Virginia did, do a little research on the physician offering the service.

"Pulled her up on the Virginia medical board," Miller said.

For this reason, Miller said, she wasn't worried about purchasing her flu vaccine from LivingSocial.

"I would have had concerns if it were being provided by someone who had a stand in the mall," she said, "but this is in a doctor's office provided by her staff."