Groupon and Other “Deals” for Mental Health Professionals
In the last week, I received two separate emails from clinicians asking my opinion on Groupon and other deal-of-the-day marketing sites for psychotherapists. In my experience, if a couple of people are asking me about it, there are probably many others considering it. Are these sites a good idea for mental health professionals? Are there any ethical issues to consider?
There are so many stories about businesses that get flooded with customers after their partnership with Groupon. Some clinicians might get the idea of using such a site to offer discounts on initial therapy sessions. This may seem like a good concept at first. But these forms of marketing are actually not such a great idea for mental health professionals
Let’s look at why.
Groupon provides daily offers to people who sign up as members of the site. When a member purchases a Groupon, they are making a payment directly to the site. Groupon then sends you a check and a list of the people who purchased the coupon. This helps you to track your customers when they redeem their coupon. What does this mean? It means that any psychotherapist offering a deal through Groupon is letting Groupon know the names of people who are contacting her or him for psychotherapy. So there is an inherent breach of confidentiality right there. Not good for you, and not good for your clients.
Groupon takes a portion of each Groupon you sell. In other words, you are splitting some of your earnings with the site. This is fee splitting. This is what the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct says about splitting fees:
Standard 6.07 Referrals and Fees
When psychologists pay, receive payment from, or divide fees with another professional, other than in an employer-employee relationship, the payment to each is based on the services provided (clinical, consultative, administrative, or other) and is not based on the referral itself.
Since Groupon is taking a percentage of your earnings in exchange for the referrals to your practice, the whole system is also a breach of the Ethics Code.
Avoiding exploitation of vulnerable populations
Groupon – and sites like it – use the concept of collective buying. This means that a minimum number of people need to sign up for the deal in order for everyone to get it. Even without the breach to confidentiality or the problem of fee-splitting, this is probably not an ethical way to manage the business of psychotherapy.
What if one were to sell more appointments than they can reasonably accommodate? It can sometimes take months for a business to manage the volume of people who have purchased a Groupon. Since the people most likely to be seeking treatment may be vulnerable, having them purchase a session and then queuing them into a long waiting list may be exploitative of vulnerable populations. Since we are also unable to screen the people who purchase the Groupon, we are not in the position to assess their appropriateness for the service they are buying. Suppose they are in crisis or at risk for danger to self or others?
Clearly, it raises all sorts of ethical dilemmas to have people pre-purchase a therapy session through a third party. In this economy, it can be appealing to think that there are creative shortcuts to building a practice and getting people into our offices. But we have to be very careful in considering the impact of the new marketing and social networking tools. If you want to offer discounted intakes for psychotherapy, it’s probably best to offer that to consumers and have them purchase the service directly from you, assessing them at the time of “purchase.” Groupon may offer great deals for customers, but in this case, it’s not a great deal for psychotherapists who may find themselves in hot water when trying to market discounted services.