Is Groupon legal for doctors?

Groupon and other similar social sites, like Living Social and CoupTessa, are all the rage now.  But is it legal for doctors and dentists to advertise their services on these websites?

Groupon is a deal-of-the-day website that features discounted gift certificates usable at local or national companies.  If a certain number of people sign up for the offer, then the deal becomes available to all; if the predetermined minimum is not met, no one gets the deal that day. It is said that this reduces risk for retailers, who can treat the coupons as quantity discounts as well as sales promotion tools. Groupon makes money by keeping approximately half the money the customer pays for the coupon.

Some doctors see Groupon as just another marketing opportunity and offer discounts on elective or cosmetic procedures like liposuction and veneers. Others have rejected it as an unprofitable. Still others view advertisement on social sites that require customers to prepay for services as borderline unethical, citing concerns that there is additional pressure for patients to go through with a procedure when they are having second thoughts.

So is it thumbs-up or thumbs-down for Groupon?

While there is no definitive answer to that question, the rumblings emerging from medical societies and healthcare lawyers that have looked at the issue lean towards thumbs-down.

According to Sun Sentinel,”because the websites keep as much as half of the patient’s payment … the online discounts could be interpreted as the practitioners splitting their fees” which is a no-no under many state laws or regulations prohibiting the “corporate practice of medicine.”  Furthermore, Groupon’s fee can also be construed as “paying kickbacks to find new patients,” which is a serious offense under federal and most state laws.

Medicare, American Medical Association, and other medical trade groups have not yet taken a position on this issue. Two medical boards in Oregon, however, banned dentists and chiropractors from giving Groupon-style discounts. Also, the Palm Beach County Medical Society has recently warned members about Groupon advertising “because the issue is still in doubt,” reported Sun Sentinel.

While the domestic reaction to social coupons for healthcare services has been somewhat modest, across the Atlantic at least one medical society, the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, has strongly condemned the practice of marketing of serious medical procedures such as breast augmentation and nose jobs on discount websites. The Association’s former President, Adam Searle, expressed his disapproval, in part, as follows:

This trivialisation and commoditization of medical procedures is appalling. It seems to have come down to the level of loyalty cards, money-off vouchers, and even competition prizes. This belittling of the seriousness of undertaking a medical procedure degrades not only our specialty but also the medical profession as a whole.

Another former president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons also stated, in part, as follows:

Selling surgical procedures without patients being first assessed for suitability is highly unethical and goes against every guideline and recommendation from the General Medical Council and the surgical associations.

For now, however, since the jury is still out, caveat venditor.

Deniza Gertsberg is an attorney who represents healthcare providers in compliance-related matters in New York and New Jersey. 

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