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A new way to pay for health care: Groupon

A patient receiving an MRI scan
Groupons are particularly common for imaging services like MRIs. Photo: Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

If you're looking for some certainty about how much a health care test will cost you, the best solution may be a maddening one — buying a Groupon.

Why it matters: These coupons do often give patients a good and predictable price, which can be hard to come by, especially for the uninsured. But they're also a signal that volume — not value — is the driving force in the business of health care.

Details: NPR has a close look at this trend, which first started bubbling up on Twitter late last month.

  • Groupons seem to be especially popular for outpatient imaging services, like MRIs and CT scans — tests that are already susceptible to overuse.
  • In Atlanta, you can get a heart CT scan for as little as $26. The coupons sell well, and NPR quotes providers saying they started offering the discounts simply because their competitors were.

Medical Groupons can help fill gaps in insurance coverage — that’s a big selling point for dental Groupons, and could also help explain the popularity of Groupons for services like mammograms. Insurance usually covers those, but that only helps you if you have insurance.

My thought bubble: There is only one reason for providers to offer up complex medical testing on Groupon — to generate volume. Big-name hospital systems may not be offering online coupons, but they, too, are trying to drive volume

  • Everybody loves to talk about value and patient-centered care and the right care in the right context and so on. But Groupons are not the sign of a system that's trying very hard to do any of those things.
  • They're a sign of a system that still rewards doing more stuff, whether it's necessary or not.