HealthKey: Doctors experimenting with social media

Monica Dillon wasn't happy with her eye care provider, so when she saw an online deal for an exam and glasses for $50, she clicked on it.

The accountant, who lives in Columbia and works in Washington, doesn't ordinarily get medical care without a recommendation. But the offer was too good to resist — and, as she notes, there would be no surgery or undressing.

"The timing was right so I jumped on it," she said about her purchase via Groupon, a deal-of-the-day e-mail sent to tens of thousands of people in the Baltimore region and millions nationwide. "I'd be more cautious about laser surgery or hair removal. That would take more research. But this worked out; they found a problem with my prescription."

Katzen Eye Group, the company behind the deal, 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.

Web pages, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts have become a staple of businesses. The newest trend are dealmakers such as Foursquare (a mobile application allowing participants to "check in" at locations and win small rewards), Scoutmob (e-mails that promise discounts at hot spots in cities such as Washington, though not yet Baltimore) and LivingSocial (a Groupon-like deal site).

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.

The health industry recently has jumped on this e-bandwagon — seeing some successes and taking some hits — as it tries to capitalize on new opportunities in social media, say health care providers and media experts.

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.

And there are likely to be more.

'Exceeded our expectation'

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.

Edlow said the Groupon offer 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.

In the end, Katzen will probably win loyal customers, even at full price, said Wendy Moe, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Groupon and other social media networks are successful because "regular people" endorse the product just by signing up, Moe said. It's "grassroots campaigning versus some sort of paid agent-based marketing."

The downside: Social media doesn't allow companies to completely control a message. If customers have a bad experience, they can post about it on Twitter or their Facebook page.

"We're still in a stage of transition and change," Moe said. "But companies, including health care companies, are seeing if they aren't using [social media] and their competitors are, they're at a disadvantage."

There are pitfalls for all companies, said Chad Capellman, director of social media for Genuine Interactive in Boston and a health marketing columnist.

If the discount on a product or service is too low, a company can lose a lot of money when the offer becomes popular, he said. One Baltimore merchant, SaSa's Day Spa, told consumers that it sold so many Groupon deals for massages that it couldn't honor them.

Medical issues

Health care companies also might face some unique problems, Capellman said. Privacy laws mean health care companies must mind the information they share about patients online. Pharmaceutical companies have had the opposite problem — government regulators have said some Tweets and Facebook posts lacked enough information about the risks of drugs being touted.

Capellman said hospitals and medical offices can effectively use social media to fundraise and pass on health information — something that hospitals such as Greater Baltimore Medical Center regularly do with Facebook and Twitter. 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.

Still, consumers might not choose a gynecologist or an emergency room just because they are offered a coupon, Capellman said.

"People probably have a different threshold for an eye exam, and maybe the dividing line is robe or no robe, as in do you have to disrobe," he said. "The point is, 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."

Indeed, Dillon and Patricia Alvarado, who bought a Groupon for service at Canton Dental Associates, said they would draw the line at buying some medical services and going to certain Baltimore-area neighborhoods for a deal.

Alvarado lives in Sparrows Point but grew up near the Canton dental office and felt comfortable there. The stay-at-home mother of three has limited dental insurance so the $59 bargain was eye-catching — an exam, a cleaning and a full set of X-rays for less than the regular cost of a cleaning.

"This isn't so personal; it's not surgery or the gynecologist," said Alvarado. And after her warm welcome and a look around at the state-of-the-art offices, she said, "I'll likely come back here."

That's what dentist Jerry Kilian is banking on. Cutting the price from $250 to $59 means he just covers his costs, so he 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.

The idea to use Groupon came from Ashley Clark, the office marketing manager, who said the practice was doing well connecting with patients on Facebook. When the office moved, she thought Groupon could lure new, younger customers from the area. At the time, she wasn't sure Groupon even worked with medical offices.

"Dental work often falls by the wayside with younger people," she said. "In this economy, everyone is looking for a deal. And everyone is online. I thought it might work. ... We're booked weeks out."

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