Searching online for health care deals

Helium is a key component in operating MRI machines.

When Cynthia Pierro needed an MRI a few months ago, she didn't pick up her phone to call a doctor. She went online to search for a deal.

"I was extremely excited because I've had MRIs in the past and they're usually over a thousand dollars," says Pierro, "and here was one for right around 400 dollars."

Pierro found the MRI on a site called Dealwell.com. It's like a Priceline for medical services. You can either take the discounted rate that posted, or bid even lower.

Geoff Fischer, president and cofounder of the Dallas-based startup, explains: "So you come to our site and type in your zip code and we'll show you a list of providers near you for an eye exam, a teeth cleaning, or a massage or a spa treatment."

On sites like Dealwell, prices are front and center.

"It's crazy that it's 2013 and for so many things in the health and wellness category, you go in, you have the procedure and you come out and they hand you a bill and that's the first time you find out about the price," says Fischer.

Hundreds of service providers pay a monthly fee to be featured. And it's not just dentists and massage therapists. There are primary care physicians, even bariatric surgeons.

Dr. Dirk Rodriguez has done more than 8,000 weight loss surgeries. He knows advertising this way is a bit risky. "I didn't want it to cheapen it, okay?," says Dr. Rodriguez. "I didn't want them to think it was a buy-one-get-one-free thing. This is not it. It is a big ticket item, number one, and it's a major surgery."

On Dealwell, he offers free consultations. So how's it going?

"Actually, as soon as I get a Dealwell patient in, I'll let you know," he says, "but I haven't had anyone come in yet."

Deal sites do have the potential to become more popular, according to David Williams of the Health Business Group. "But, you won't be shopping online for the bulk of your medical services," says Williams.

As more people get insurance, he says deal sites will end up selling specialty, mostly cosmetic services. Not dialysis or heart surgeries. At least for now.

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