Is buying an online discount voucher for a mani-pedi the same as buying one for a dental exam or a medical procedure? Increasingly, medical services are showing up on sites like Groupon and Living Social. And also increasingly, skeptics are raising a Botoxed eyebrow when they do.
Let's face it: The recession has us scampering wildly for bargains. Paying full price is a shameful burden borne silently for fear of social ostracizing. And on the other side of the coin is the medical profession, wondering why they can't just appeal directly to consumers instead of dealing with those annoying and slow-to-pay insurance companies.
And so they have.Apparently, I'm a case in point. I dropped our family's dental insurance in November. Paying cash for trips to the dentist made more financial sense for my family than buying insurance. Employer-sponsored dental plans may be worthwhile when the company is picking up the bulk of the tab. But shopping on the open market for dental insurance for my family of four quickly convinced me that it was cheaper to go without.
I was happy to bid adieu to my previous dentist, a practitioner we used simply because he was in our old dental network. He scored low on my personal Richter scale of patient satisfaction: He had an indifferent office staff, was unwilling to work with me on price when I was laid off, always kept me waiting up to an hour for appointments and he had an office sorely in need of modernization.
Still, I needed to get my teeth cleaned and checked, didn't I?
And then I saw my solution: A Living Social deal for $39 where I could get my teeth cleaned, a full set of X-rays and an exam by a dentist. I couldn't be happier with the outcome.
Or take Lucia Singer, a Brentwood California publicist with a dazzling white smile. And now I know how she keeps it that way. She recently spent $179 on a Groupon deal for a teeth-whitening process that would have otherwise cost $450.
Although she was reaching for the Advil and only eating white food on the night after her procedure, "It was an amazing deal," she said, teeth still smarting. The deal was for new patients only and it was offered by celebrity dentist Dr. Bill Dorfman who, as the voucher says uses the "same sacred fingers that restored fang fortitude to bat-biting Prince of Darkness Ozzy Osbourne." Dorfman is the New York Times best-selling author of Billion Dollar Smile, and the featured tooth technician of ABC's "Extreme Makeover." He has been the go-to smile guy for Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson and Usher.
For what it's worth, the American College of Dentistry, while recognizing that it is legal for dentists to advertise, strongly frowns on the practice. Its website states that the ACD "does not encourage or support advertising by dentists and feels that any form of advertising by dentists is demeaning to the profession, not in the best interests of the public and not in keeping with its perception of professionalism."
I'm thinking these guys wrote that before the recession and should maybe rethink a dentist's need to pay off his school loans. Until then, maybe they want a couple of units of Botox to erase those frown lines? A quick Google search of Botox deals on Living Social came up with 20 units of the toxin for $78 to $150, depending on location. Clearly, the plastics guys have figured out how to reach the consumer directly.
If pharmaceutical companies can speak to us on TV, suggesting we ask our doctor about their latest cure for psoriasis, why shouldn't doctors be able to talk to us directly in the form of discounts? And as for the idea of picking my dentist based on his willingness to clean my teeth for just $39, yeah, it did feel a little nuts. But frankly, I picked my previous dentist because he agreed to take my insurance and I suspect that's probably what they paid him for cleanings too.
Here are five tips for using a discount medical/dental voucher.
1. Do Your Research. Check online recommendations for a few of the names before you book an appointment with anyone. This is your teeth and your wrinkles you're talking about, not a spa certificate where maybe you prefer your massages a bit softer. Before purchasing my Living Social voucher for $39, I determined that the Right Dental Group actually had participating dentists close to my home. I also Googled the dentist I intended to use, Dr. Ben Javid of Promenade Dentistry and from his website was able to learn where he went to school, that he'd been in practice for awhile, etc. I also read some testimonials and reviews of his work there and elsewhere.
2. Stay Loyal. If your existing dentist is on the list, well, don't be surprised and don't be angry. Dentists are allowed to advertise and offering a new patient promotion falls within professional guidelines. Why not ask him to discount your next visit as a reward for your loyalty?
3. Just Say No. If the voucher dentist or doctor recommends work that you feel is unnecessary, feel free to say no thank you. If you're there and complaining about tooth pain, you can't expect the dentist to not recommend some treatment. But if you have any doubts, get another opinion. The dentist I saw gave me a thorough exam and flagged a bunch of old silver fillings in need of replacement. I've heard that same recommendation from my previous dentists but I subscribe to the "no pain, no dice" school of dentistry. In other words, if they aren't bothering me, I leave the pearly whites alone.
4. Maintain High Standards. Hold the voucher doctor to the same standards you would any other medical professional. All of the major voucher sites have a complaint mechanism. Some offer refunds if you aren't satisfied. Most send you a questionnaire afterward about your experience. Understand the terms of what you are buying before you purchase. In some cases, there are expiration dates or blackout dates. My guess is that much of the dissatisfaction with the experience comes from misunderstanding those things, not the quality of care being offered.
5) Only One. Understand that this is a one-time only offer. Charging just $39 for a full set of x-rays, cleaning and the time the exam takes is a loss-leader. My voucher dentist, upon hearing I was a cash customer without insurance, volunteered to discount his future services.
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