Groupon Dos and Don’ts

Family Health, Featured Article, Healthy Living, Power to the Patient
on October 12, 2011

If you subscribe to Groupon or any “daily deal”-type emails, you probably have an offer in your inbox right now for a heavily discounted massage, facial or pedicure.  But it’s also not uncommon these days to see offers for medical spa procedures like Botox, laser hair removal, and cellulite treatment, or even dentists getting in on the action with discounted teeth whitening, cleanings or X-rays.

These deals may see like an irresistible opportunity to try out a procedure you’ve been curious about but haven’t had the cash for. But is it safe to get these services at a discounted rate?

“This is different than buying a $20 coupon for a $100 dinner,” says Dr. Susan Weinkle, president-elect of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS). “There are a number of very important patient safety issues here, and patients need to be educated.”

Here are some tips on how to evaluate these special offers.

Understand the side effects. Medi-spa treatments are becoming so popular that it’s easy to think of them as on par with regular spa offerings like facials and pedicures—but they’re not. “These medical treatments have potential side effects that really have to be addressed and respected,” Weinkle says. “It is quite different than a facial or a massage—things that have great value but not great risk.” Teeth whitening and laser hair removal can cause burns, and a bad Botox job can actually affect your vision. While severe side effects are rare, you should be aware of the full range of potential consequences before you have any procedure and weigh that against the benefits.

Don’t trust a too-good-to-be-true price. You’ve heard of loss leaders—heavily discounted items that stores use to entice customers in the door in the hopes they’ll buy more while they’re there. Daily deals function in a similar way. The spa may take a hit on your discounted treatment, but the owner is hoping you’ll be pleased with the results and come back for more at the full price.But beware of deals that are so cheap that they seem impossible. Remember that Groupon and other deal sites take a percentage of the company’s profits, so they’re operating at even more of a loss than it seems, and shady providers may try to make it up with sub-par services.“There are ways to dilute Botox so that it looks like you’re getting more,” Weinkle says. “But you may actually be getting what you pay for, instead of a bargain.”

Do your research. Before you click on “Buy,” give the facility that’s offering the treatment a call and make a few inquiries. If you’re looking into Botox, for instance, ask whether a physician will be administering the drug, and if not, whether there will be one overseeing the treatment or on the premises. You can also ask how the drug is stored at the facility. (It should be refrigerated.) If you’re still a little nervous, ask if they have any before-and-after photos, or patients who can offer referrals or testimonials.

Trust your instincts. The answers the facility provides are important, but equally crucial is how they handle the questions. Professionals should understand this is part of the process, and being evasive or defensive may be a sign they have something to hide. “Most dentists are happy to answer your questions, and happy to do whatever they can to help you make a good decision,” says Dr. Sally Cram, consumer advisory spokesperson for the American Dental Association. “These are all perfectly normal things, and not being willing to do them is a red flag.” If a provider is acting squirrely, or you drive by the office and don’t like its looks, give the deal a pass.

Don’t hop between providers. If it’s the first time you’ve ever had a procedure done, or you’re new in town, it’s fine to choose a provider who’s offering a deal if you’ve verified that they have a good track record. But after that, if you’re satisfied with the service, you should stay loyal to that facility, and not switch based on who’s offering the lowest prices. “It’s really important to see someone who knows your history,” Cram says. “Say you have a little bit of gum recession. Your dentist of 20 years may decide it’s not getting worse, so you can just watch it. But if you went to someone new, he might say, ‘That looks pretty bad. You may need a gum graft.’”

RELATED: 5 More Ways to Save

Take your time. By design, many daily deals offer only a limited time in which to buy—it helps create an urgency that makes people think they’re going to miss out if they don’t act. But decisions about medical treatments shouldn’t be made spur of the moment. A better approach is to consider the kinds of treatments you might be interested in, and do some research on whether you’re a good candidate and the facilities in your area that have experience administering it. Then you can keep your eye out for a deal that matches your needs, rather than being lured by whatever pops up in your inbox. Odds are, something like the offer you see today will come around again before you know it.