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Be Wary of "Free Foot Exam" Ads

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

If you receive a coupon in the mail or see a newspaper, Yellow Pages or Internet ad offering a free foot examination, be cautious. The exam may turn out to be costly. Doctors of podiatric medicine (DPMs) -- also known as foot doctors or podiatrists -- can provide valuable health care. They often participate with other health professionals in free health screenings sponsored by nonprofit organizations. But, as in any other health profession, some podiatrists engage in unethical billing practices.

Patients are sometimes billed for services they thought would be free, did not request, did not need, or were not even performed. Some are referred to a collection agency if they refuse to pay. Even worse, some are subjected to unnecessary x-ray procedures or surgery, or are advised to purchase unnecessary orthotics or other appliances. Since the prevalence of foot problems increases with age and decreases with income, elderly and low-income persons are often targeted.

There is no way to determine what percentage of "free" exams are legitimate and what percentage are not. However, there are steps you can take to minimize the likelihood of a ripoff:

California's Board of Podiatric Medicine (BPM) is seeking passage of a law banning the advertising of free examinations or treatment of the foot or ankle or the furnishing of podiatric medical services. The law would not prohibit podiatrists from providing free examinations, just from directly advertising them. The proposal would still permit charitable organizations to advertise the offering of free services under their auspices. Under current law, scams are difficult to stop because: (a) many victims fail to report them; and (b) BPM would have to prove intent to commit fraud, which can be difficult and expensive to prove.

BPM's proposal is modeled after a ban administered by the California Board of Optometry since 1937. The Board of Chiropractic Examiners has a somewhat similar regulation that makes it unprofessional conduct for California-licensed chiropractors to advertise they will waive or rebate any out-of-pocket expense not paid by the patient's insurer unless that insurer is notified in writing of such arrangement.

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