The Last Word: Time-limited Deals

By Michael Saul / 12 Jan 2018

Cosmetic surgery specialist lawyer Michael Saul argues why time-limited deals should be stopped in the aesthetic specialty

The poor regulation of the non-invasive aesthetic specialty is an issue of great concern, and the question of using financial incentives to further encourage spending in this field brings with it its own ethical and moral dilemmas. As someone who has acted for patients who have been an unfortunate recipient of unsatisfactory or negligent procedures, I know all too well that the combination of the two could be a dangerous concoction, both for the patient and to the industry at large.

In addition, the Keogh report – a 2013 government-sanctioned, independent review of the regulation of cosmetic interventions – described the advertising of time-limited offers as hazardous, and called for tighter controls to ensure reliability of these kinds of adverts in order to provide the public with safer choices.1

For those currently working in private cosmetic healthcare, the temptation to compete against other businesses by offering discounts can be strong. From a purely commercial standpoint, why should a company not be allowed to employ the same sales tactics that are used successfully in other industries?

The argument against providing time-limited offers comes in two parts. The first is to argue that these deals do more harm than good to private healthcare as a specialty. The second is to argue that these deals do more harm than good to the patient, in a sector that is beholden to a duty of care.

The provider

Any cosmetic procedure should come with a basic minimum cost that sets the standard for the quality of the service delivered. The patient is paying for the experience, expertise and quality of the provider, which covers the practitioner, the materials used and the establishment where they conduct their procedures. As such, advertising discounted prices on cosmetic procedures through time-limited deals, or buy-one-get-one-free offers, should raise more than a few concerned eyebrows. A large practice may be able to absorb some of the costs lost through such heavy discounts, yet if a smaller or independent company also offers these deals, it could bring into question the quality of the goods and service on offer.

Time-limited deals, in particular, can prey on people’s vulnerabilities, either emotionally, physically or financially

The patient

A cosmetic procedure, of any kind, is subject to risks and potential complications, and can have long-term, if not permanent, side effects. It is not a decision that should be rushed into or taken lightly. As such, according to Keogh, it is entirely inappropriate for a private healthcare provider to offer time-limited financial incentives to patients for cosmetic intervention treatments.

Time-limited deals, in particular, can prey on people’s vulnerabilities, either emotionally, physically or financially, and could push these individuals into committing to a procedure before they have done the necessary research to find a safe, qualified and reputable practitioner. Time-limited deals could also force the patient into undergoing a treatment well before the industry-advised 14-day cooling-off period.2

Can time-limited deals be appropriate?

The treatment in which is been offered on a time-limited deal is key; there is unlikely to be any ethical issues if promoting skincare and facial treatments, whereby patients do not need a cooling-off period before purchase. It could also be said that the availability of otherwise cost-prohibitive procedures should not be taken away from the consumer who has done their research and is aware of the associated risks and potential complications. Procedures such as botulinum toxin injections or dermal fillers can cost hundreds of pounds per session and require ‘topping up’ over time, and so it can become an expensive exercise. Due to this, loyalty discount schemes could be seen as a good thing, removing the obstacles that prevent those from lower income backgrounds accessing a service that those from higher incomes can better afford. 

The practitioner should insist that the patient takes a cooling-off period before committing to a procedure, and resist taking deposits or partial-payment in advance of the procedure

In addition, reputable businesses that wish to use these schemes should, perhaps, not be discriminated against by taking away their opportunity to promote their company or boost sales. However, the public’s health should be first and foremost at the top of the list of priorities. Physically and emotionally, any individual who is considering a cosmetic procedure should be able to fully research their options and prepare themselves mentally for what is to come. A time-sensitive offer could cause an otherwise cautious patient to commit too soon.

What can be done?

While the industry itself is showing signs of improving, with the arrival of more organisations aimed at encouraging best practice, such as the Joint Council of Cosmetic Practitioners (JCCP), there are still many steps that can be taken to ensure patient safety and encourage high standards among quality private healthcare providers.

The practitioner should insist that the patient takes a cooling-off period before committing to a procedure, and resist taking deposits or partial-payment in advance of the procedure, as this could also put patients under pressure to commit to a treatment.

Those found to be violating ASA rules face sanctions that range from on-the-spot fines, seizure of goods, negative publicity, referral to Ofcom or Trading Standards, and imprisonment

In addition, private clinics should not utilise any offers or discounts in promoting their services that could negatively apply pressure to a potential patient. A reward scheme whereby the sixth cosmetic injection is complimentary in a course of six, for example, could be an appropriate way to reward patient loyalty without the patient feeling obliged to pay out for unnecessary treatments. In my opinion, time-limited offers, or discounts off a second cosmetic procedure, are not appropriate and should be tightly restricted.

Lastly, private healthcare providers should make themselves aware of the rules established by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) to ensure that they are advertising their services in a responsible and legal way. For example, it is prohibited to advertise prescription-only medicines, such as botulinum toxin, to the public, and price lists included on a website shouldn’t encourage viewers to choose a POM based on the price. Those found to be violating ASA rules face sanctions that range from on-the-spot fines, seizure of goods, negative publicity, such as having an ASA warning appear in search engine results, referral to Ofcom or Trading Standards, and imprisonment.

Duty of care

Patients trust those who work in the medical profession and claim to be experts in their field. With this trust comes an enhanced responsibility to look after those patients and give them sound and objective advice, and to ensure that no patient is ever under any induced pressure – financial or otherwise – to commit to a procedure that they do not need or are not ready for.

Until regulation of the non-surgical aesthetic specialty improves as a whole, it is the private healthcare industry’s duty to first and foremost protect their patients, and then seek to lift the standard of the industry by not pandering to inappropriate marketing tools to drive sales. 

References

1. Gov.UK, Review of the Regulation of Cosmetic Interventions, (2013) <https://www.gov.uk/ government/publications/review-of-the-regulation-of-cosmetic-interventions>

2. Royal College of Surgeons, Professional Standards for Cosmetic Surgery (April 2016) <bit.ly/RCScosmeticstandards>

3. Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), (2017), http://bit.ly/2BS0AY8

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