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Direct-to-Consumer Health Care


On October 11, 2010, Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn reported that some U.S. health care providers are experimenting with trying to reach patients through social media and reaping big rewards. Providers are not just using Twitter and Facebook but trying new social media tools like Groupon, Foursquare, Scoutmob and LivingSocial that all blend social media with market forces to bring customers value and create new revenue for entrepreneurs, business owners and now health care providers. The amazing part is that these providers, many of whom are not primary care providers but specialists like ophthalmologists, are actually interested in patients who have no insurance. The Katzen Eye Group is among the growing number of health care providers testing the latest in social media. They're intrigued by the opportunity to attract new patients who might have no or little insurance for specialty services, and to provide information and services to current patients.

The social media company Groupon was launched in 2007 as a means of organizing social action, including special deals for groups. The Chicago-based company now sends a daily e-mail to 11 million mainly young subscribers who get 50 percent to 90 percent off a service or product such as pottery classes or restaurant meals. A deal is offered for up to 24 hours and a negotiated number of sales are required for the deal to go through. When it does, Groupon takes a cut. In the past year, Groupon has offered a growing number of deals for eye exams, teeth-cleaning and whitening, electrolysis and chiropractic services. Approximately 15 percent of Groupon deals nationwide are for health care services, says Julie Anne Mossler, a company spokeswoman. Foursquare, meanwhile, has partnered with cable channels MTV and CNN and the healthy living site Health Month to encourage healthier living by awarding "badges" to those who, for example, report getting an STD screening, shopping at a farmers' market or cutting out bad food.

Katzen's Groupon offer "greatly exceeded our expectation," said CEO Richard Edlow. It brought in more than 300 patients, including many who are expected to return. It began as a way to attract business, but ended up reaching many uninsured people who appreciated the affordable exam and glasses. It inspired Katzen to round up dozens of eye care providers across the country for another Groupon offering to help more people without coverage.

Chad Capellman, director of social media for Genuine Interactive in Boston and a health marketing columnist, suggests that the health care demand might outstrip the ability to provide the services. He notes that one Baltimore merchant, SaSa's Day Spa, told consumers that it sold so many Groupon deals for massages that it couldn't honor them. In addition, providers might face some unique problems due to privacy laws. And some consumers might not choose a gynecologist or an emergency room just because they are offered a coupon, Capellman said. People may have different thresholds for eye exams than they do for other types of medical procedures. Capellman insists that "you need to know your audience before diving into social media. The mistake is that people want to do everything at once, but you need to know what you'll get from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Groupon and avoid lumping them altogether."

Jerry Kilian, a dentist, is banking on customers coming back. He cut the price of a dental exam from $250 to $59, so he is just covering his costs and therefore needs patients to return to make a profit. ' So far, so good, he said: About 30 of 440 have redeemed their Groupons and 29 have booked further treatment or a six-month checkup. "Dental work often falls by the wayside with younger people," he said. "In this economy, everyone is looking for a deal. And everyone is online. I thought it might work'We're booked weeks out." It certainly is refreshing in this time of reform and a tough economy to find providers happy to provide health care that people actually want and are able to purchase! When need meets opportunity, innovation and value are always produced. This is the new reality that health care must embrace.

More Blog Posts by Chris Gibbons

author bio

Chris Gibbons, MD, MPH, is the associate director of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Community Health, and holds faculty appointments at the Johns Hopkins Schools of Medicine and Public Health. Dr. Gibbons is the Chair of CFAH's Board of Trustees. He blogs on the Healthcare Disparities Solutions Blog, a blog about healthIT innovation for disparities solutions. Want to read more from Dr. Gibbons? Subscribe to the RSS feed.

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