Emory University medical fellow Dr. Nicole Herbst was shocked when she saw three patients who came in with abnormal results from chest CT scans they had bought on Groupon.
Similar deals have shown up for various lung, heart and full-body scans across Atlanta, as well as in Oklahoma and California. Groupon also offers discount coupons for expectant parents looking for ultrasounds, sold as "fetal memories."
While Herbst declined to comment for this story, her sentiments were shared widely by the medical community on social media. The concept of patients using Groupons to get discounted medical care elicited the typical stages of Twitter grief: anger, bargaining and acceptance that this is the medical system today in the United States.
But, ultimately, the use of Groupon and other pricing tools is symptomatic of a healthcare market where patients desperately want a deal—or at least tools that better nail down their costs before they get care.
"Whether or not a person may philosophically agree that medicine is a business, it is a market," said Steven Howard, who runs Saint Louis University's health administration program.
By offering an upfront cost on a coupon site like Groupon, Howard argued, medical companies are meeting people where they are. It helps drive prices down, he said, all while marketing the medical businesses.
For Paul Ketchel, CEO and founder of MDsave, a site that contracts with providers to offer discount-priced vouchers on bundled medical treatments and services, the use of medical Groupons and his own company's success speak to the brokenness of the U.S. healthcare system.
MDsave offers deals at over 250 hospitals across the country, selling vouchers for anything from MRIs to back surgery. It has experienced rapid growth and expansion in the several years since its launch. Ketchel attributes that growth to the general lack of price transparency in the U.S. healthcare industry amid rising costs to consumers.
"All we are really doing is applying the e-commerce concepts and engineering concepts that have been applied to other industries to healthcare," he argued. "We are like transacting with Expedia or Kayak while the rest of the healthcare industry is working with an old-school travel agent."