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Misleading and High-pressure Sales Tactics Employed by Unscrupulous Medical Centres to Peddle Health Check Services Industry Urged to Exercise Self-discipline and Sanction Bad Apples to Interdict the Malpractices

  • 2021.12.15

As consumers have become more willing to spend on healthcare services, many corporate-owned “one-stop” medical centres have burgeoned in the market, touting their extensive medical network; professional medical equipment and personnel; and convenient clinic locations as selling points. Apart from general physical examinations, they also cover a diverse range of services such as medical specialties, Chinese medicine, dental care, vaccination, physiotherapy and even grooming and haircare. Although these health checks and medical services may seem convenient for consumers, their sales tactics have been deemed questionable and even involved malpractices. The Consumer Council received complaints regarding the promotional tactics of medical centres such as enticing customers with cheap or free health checks, then peddling other expensive treatment packages during the check-up. Some involved exaggerating the health condition or giving misleading claims, while some traders even pitched costly yet unnecessary treatments to vulnerable consumers using high-pressure sales tactics.

Besides, as a respected profession, the medical industry should closely observe such problems and exercise self-discipline, so as to curb the unhealthy trend of unfair sales practices. Traders are also advised to clearly and accurately explain to consumers all health check items, costs and risks in a professional and responsible manner to safeguard consumer interests. The Council reminds the industry that any sales malpractices employed during the sales process, such as false trade descriptions, misleading omissions, or aggressive commercial practices, might violate the Trade Descriptions Ordinance.

Case 1: Touting Multiple Expensive Packages by Exploiting the Consumer’s Vulnerability

The complainant became interested in Company A’s health check packages after receiving their cold call, thus visited their branch in person to inquire about the details. Upon arrival, the complainant was ushered into a room by the staff and persistently persuaded to purchase their services, during which the staff even pressurised him to hand over his credit card. Overwhelmed by 2 hours of non-stop bombardment, the complainant finally succumbed and agreed to purchase a tooth extraction treatment for $10,000 and a chiropractic treatment for $29,080, and was allowed to leave after settling the payment. In the ensuing 10 months, the complainant was persistently persuaded by the staff of Company A to purchase other packages, including colonoscopy, health supplements, and even renewal of the chiropractic treatment, amounting to a total of over $150,000 in purchases.

As the complainant was weak in communication ability and suffered from long-term mental health issues, he needed regular appointments with social workers. During one such session, he mentioned the incident to the social worker, who lodged a complaint on his behalf with the Council against Company A’s sales tactics and sought to get refund of his previous payments.

In response to the Council’s letter, Company A agreed to give the complainant a full refund. The Council also reprimanded Company A for their unfair trade practice of exploiting the consumer’s vulnerability because of his weak communication ability and mental state. As requested by the complainant, Company A was reminded never to contact him again for sales pitches through any channels.

Case 2: Clinical Condition Exaggerated; Elderly Customer Coerced to Withdraw Cash at ATM

The elderly complainant was enticed by a $98 spinal screening promoted through a cold call by Company B. However, after the check that lasted for less than 10 minutes, the staff of Company B claimed that the complainant had severe spine problems, thus took her to a Chinese medicine practitioner for pulse diagnosis, consultation and acupuncture on her right knee. The complainant was notified afterwards by the staff that the Chinese medication treatment cost $2,400 in total and was coaxed into purchasing a treatment package for $88,000 so that the $2,400 could be waived. As the complainant’s credit card had a credit limit of $20,000 only, the staff first charged partial payment from the complainant’s debit card, then accompanied her to the ATM to withdraw cash for the outstanding amount.

Concerned about her spine condition, the complainant told family members about the diagnosis and relevant treatment costs when she returned home. As the complainant had medical records to support her diagnosis of cognitive decline and cognitive impairment, her family members opined that she was unable to fully comprehend the treatment purchased and they thus negotiated with Company B on her behalf. Company B insisted that in addition to the video and audio recording of the whole process, the complainant had also declared that she was not on long-term medication, they were thus of the view that no sales misconduct was involved. Subsequently, the complainant’s family members sought assistance from the Council regarding Company B’s unreasonable sales tactics involving exaggeration of the clinical condition followed by coaxing an elderly person to purchase expensive treatments, and requested for a refund. After the Council’s conciliation, Company B agreed to arrange a full refund provided that the complainant signed a settlement agreement. The case was hence resolved.

Case 3: Persuaded to Conduct Non-urgent but High-risk Dental Surgery; Refund Denied Claiming Cooling-off Period Expired

After the complainant completed a physiotherapy treatment at a chiropractic and physiotherapy centre run by a medical group, she received 3 complimentary screening items and she thus made a reservation for a dental check-up with Company C operated by the same medical group. The free dental check-up lasted for 1 minute, after which the staff did a dental X-ray and 3D imaging for the complainant. The dentist then claimed that there were issues with the growth position of the complainant’s wisdom teeth, hence suggested to have the 4 wisdom teeth extracted at a surgical fee of $57,620. Although the complainant expressed that she would be leaving Hong Kong soon and was not in a rush to carry out the surgery, the staff still coaxed her to pay now and arrange for the surgery later upon returning to Hong Kong, claiming that she would otherwise need to pay an examination fee of $1,000 in addition to another examination charge in the future. In light of this, the complainant agreed to complete the payment.

When the complainant’s mother learnt about the situation, she sought advice from a number of dentists on behalf of her daughter. All consulted dentists pointed out that since the 2 lower wisdom teeth sat close to the nerves, the surgery to extract them would be risky. Furthermore, as the complainant was still relatively young and the surrounding teeth were in good condition, the consulted dentists opined that there was no urgency in extracting the wisdom teeth. The complainant decided to call off the surgery and applied for a refund with Company C, but received no reply. Only upon enquiry by the complainant’s mother after 2 months did Company C respond, denying a refund on the grounds that the 14-day cooling-off period had lapsed and that the complainant failed to provide a medical certificate. As such, the complainant’s mother lodged a complaint with the Council, alleging that there was no contract signed between Company C and her daughter, and neither did Company C mention any cooling-off period nor request for any medical certification. She was disappointed with the way Company C handled the matter.

After the Council’s conciliation, Company C eventually agreed to allow exchange to another treatment package of the same value. The complainant accepted the suggestion and exchanged the full amount to physiotherapy services with a guaranteed 5-year validity period.

The Council is concerned about the increasing phenomenon of medical centres enticing customers with low-priced or free health treatments without the genuine desire to conduct health checks for them, but instead just using the opportunity to tout other services or packages. The Council reminds consumers not to make impulse purchases when lured by the promotions of medical centres, but should select services based on their actual needs and discuss with family members before making a decision. Consumers should also pay heed to the following:

  • During cold calls, beware of traders claiming to be collaborating with the Government in promoting medical check-ups, which indeed is false claim;
  • Not to be enticed by promotions such as low-priced or free health checks, or trial treatments as these might only be the pretexts for traders to peddle other packages. Consumers should not make hasty decisions or impulse purchases based on the claimed privileges;
  • Compare the examination items and charges across various health check packages, and consult with the family doctor. In case of any query regarding the licensing and regulations of private healthcare facilities, consumers can browse the website of the Office for Regulation of Private Healthcare Facilities and the Private Healthcare Facilities Register;
  • Seek a doctor’s assessment and recommendations before conducting a health check, so as to avoid unnecessary or invasive examination items, resulting in financial loss, waste of time and undue worry;
  • The examination results/test report should be delivered by a doctor. This could prevent misdiagnosis or exaggeration of the health condition by non-medically qualified professionals;
  • Do not fully rely on the verbal promises of the staff. Request to have all verbal promises set forth in written form on the invoice and properly retain it as evidence in case of any disputes in the future.

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