12 May 2011


Last December, a new patient came to my private clinic. The first thing he did was to complain. “You charge too much,” he said.

I was so surprised that I was speechless. Above all, I had not even charged him anything. Besides, my consultation fee was anything but expensive.

After that, I chatted with our secretary at the Christmas party and found out what happened. To make it simple, doctors are not allowed to charge freely at the university private clinic. They can only follow a preset range. Having said that, the top of the range is more than three times the lowest charge.

“When new patients book appointments,” she explained, “they usually ask about the consultation fee. Most patients also know they can choose from several doctors in a specialty and would want to compare fees. If I tell them your charge is one-third of that of other doctors, they would think you are lousy.”

“I don’t mind to be despised by people I don’t know,” I said, “but I certainly don’t want to appear greedy.” (Of course, the two statements contradicted with each other. Just forgive me for being human.)

Wait a second. Suddenly I realized this could be interesting.

I instructed our secretary to tell new patients that my charge was two-third of that of others in the next two months, and then say that my charge was one-third of that of others after that. To control for confounding factors, I would decline all media interviews in the coming months.

“The patients are bound to ask why you charge less than others,” she protested. “They would ask if you are not good.”

“Just tell them you cannot comment on that,” I replied.

In January and February, only one new patient registered to see me. He did not come. That makes sense. If cost is a major issue, the patients would choose public clinics. If they decide to go private, why not choose the best?

With great expectations, I looked forward to seeing what would happen in March, when my marked price further dropped by half. To my horror, the booking increased to four times that before the experiment was launched. And all patients turned up punctually at my clinic.

I will leave the readers to interpret the results. To me, the question is whether our secretary should lie after all.

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