Does Groupon have a place in chiropractic?

I should’ve written about this long before now, but the need to write this post reached a pinnacle a few days ago.

I learned from a colleague that the Oregon Board of Chiropractic Examiners (OBCE) recently considered adding an exception to its anti-fee-splitting rule to allow DCs to enter into promotional arrangements arrangements such as Groupon and LivingSocial that normally split the cost, to the tune of roughly 50%.

Apparently, they’re receptive to the idea of chiropractic doctors using Groupon and are willing to write such an exception into the laws and codes that govern Oregon chiropractors.

Oh my.

For those who aren’t aware, Groupon (Group + Coupon) is a company that, according to its own website, “negotiates huge discounts—usually 50-90% off—with popular businesses”.  They shoot off an automated email every day to its subscribers that lists the deals available for that day only, in your specific area, offered usually by local businesses.  When enough people buy a particular Groupon, it becomes activated; if not, no worries–try again tomorrow.

Groupon works mostly with small businesses, and particularly attracts certain types: restaurants, spas, parks, dance classes, retail stores, and coffee shops, just to name a few.  Sometimes larger companies get in on the act.

Maybe Groupon is legal for chiropractic (at least in Oregon), but is it healthy?  Do we even want to go there?

Indeed, never a profession to pass up a marketing opportunity, several DCs have gotten involved with Groupon (and its competing counterparts) and signed a deal with the devil, cementing their lead in a race to the price floor.  We’re already fairly well-known for our collective desperate new patient acquisition tactics and loss leader offers.  The ridiculous idea that we’ll somehow capture the market via this race to the bottom simply will not die.

Groupon is for coffee shops, spas, and restaurants. It’s not for doctors. Your Friendly Family Doc is not (to my knowledge) giving away a free pediatric checkup to a new patient who whips out a Groupon. Your Friendly Endocrinologist isn’t dispensing twice the insulin for the price of one with any Groupon promo.  It sounds silly, and it would be. So we shouldn’t either. Not for our bread and butter services, anyway.

Sadly, 34 bucks can get you a 1-hour chiropractic treatment (is there a such thing?) and an hour in a therapeutic sauna.  (The quoted regular price is only $105, and that in itself deserves a serious chiro-flogging – with prices and self-worth this low, it’s no wonder this DC is resorting to even lower deals; the people who could afford their services are already wondering what’s wrong with this office if the prices are that low, which leaves behind only those who are looking for a rock-bottom deal.)

Wow, $34?  For 2 hours’ worth of services?  I charged more than that years ago, back when I was involved in the field of massage therapy.  And in that case, we’re talking a year and a half to two years of massage therapy training (not 10, as is true for chiropractic and continuing education) and a total tuition investment of about $6500 (as opposed to $170,000 for chiropractic medical school and subsequent post-doctoral work).

There are literally hundreds of anecdotes of small businesses lamenting that they did not implement the Groupon promotion correctly, and their results were disastrous. They got the publicity and foot traffic all right, but the overall experience was a flop, and some even went in the red.

I had found some articles a while back that took a hard look at who could and who should not use Groupon and similar services, and for those who could, how to pull it off without causing PTSD. One mentioned that (to paraphrase) any single-provider-to-single-customer setups (such as a 1-hour massage at a spa, or in our case even a chiropractic exam or adjustment) were not good candidates for Groupon because 100% of the resources (the treatment room, the practitioner’s time, etc) were taken up on one person. Thus, the more people redeem these things, the more the establishment suffers.

However, if you’re offering something in a group setting, such as a class or lecture on stretching, exercise, nutrition, cooking, or general wellness/disease prevention, a Groupon deal could work, without violating any state chiropractic board laws or giving up our professional dignity as doctors.  In fact, several other Groupon op-ed articles I found mentioned that these might be good Groupon candidates because for the provider hosting the group event, it doesn’t matter whether there are 5 or 50 people, as long as the facilities can accommodate that much. The example the article used was a dance class – when you have 8 people paying regular price and you’re holding the class anyway, someone attending with a Groupon doesn’t make much negative impact.

I’ve always refused to use Groupon, whether as a full-fledged DC, or even as a pre-DC LMT, even when every spa in my over-saturated market was doing so.  I didn’t want to devalue myself, my services, my time, or my education. Once you get people used to paying a lower price, converting them to loyal customers at full price is one tall order, and it doesn’t happen as much as we’d think. Those customers, 9 times out of 10, are off looking for the next deal. So if tire-kickers and lookey-loos are the bane of our existence now… just wait until we unleash a whole different animal by heading down the Groupon path.

So, let’s not.  Speaking for myself, I’m not a restaurant or a spa.  I’m a Doctor.  Groupon-free.  What about you?

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