Watchdog slams Optical Express healthcare marketing practices

Last night (May 5, 2011), Watchdog, the BBC‘s flagship consumer affairs programme, aired a 15-minute verdict on Optical Express’s healthcare marketing practices.

The Watchdog Report

Optical Express is the UK’s largest provider the laser eye surgery. Last year they “provided over one million clinical care appointments in the UK, including more than 124,000 laser consultations”.

The 1st part of Watchdog’s report and its companion article alleges that Optical Express engages in “pressure selling”, providing “conflicting advice at the clinics. And a pricing structure that confuses customers, and even staff.”.

Furthermore, Watchdog claimed in the 2nd part of their report that “the procedure patients go through before surgery and the information that they have been provided with is also cause for concern.”

Optical Express “totally refutes the allegations made in this programme” and for evidence, claimed that “99% of our patients said they would recommend us to family or friends” and that their “price advertising complies with the ASA Codes of Practice and our pricing structure is made clear on our website and at our consultations”.

Here are the videos of the BBC Watchdog Program:

The Advertising Standards Authority Adjudication

It’s likely that Optical Express became the subject of Watchdog’s scrutiny after the most recent Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) Adjudication involving the company was published on April 27, 2011. (The ASA aimes to ensure advertising is based on verifiable facts and enforces advertising codes on a wide range on marketing communication media.)

The main complaint, brought forward by a competitor (Ultralase), claimed that Optical Express claimed that golfer Padraig Harrington had laser eye surgery with the company. The company implies in a TV advert and brochure that the two-times Open winner had benefited from surgery with Optical Express. The ASA agreed that this was untrue, and ordered the withdrawal of the ad stating it was “misleading”.

In total, the ASA ruled that 23 out of 25 claims made by Optical Express in promotional material could not be backed up.

The ASA upheld the following claims in one advertisement that were misleading and could not be substantiated:

  1. that Optical Express “offers the latest in laser eye surgery technology” and that it used the “Most advanced Wavefront and IntraLase technology”;
  2. “Based on … the outstanding results of the VISX CustomVue procedure, NASA approved LASIK for astronauts”;
  3. “Wavefront eliminates night vision problems”;
  4. “our clinical excellence is well documented in leading research journals across Europe and the US”;
  5. “It’s Official. More people choose Optical Express than any other laser eye surgery provider”;
  6. that more people were treated with the VISX-S4IR laser than any other laser in the world;
  7. “More patients achieve better than 20/20 vision with Optical Express than with any other provider in the UK and Europe”;
  8. “all servicemen in the US Navy who require Laser eye surgery are treated only on the most advanced technology platform in laser eye surgery – the VISX S4IR with Wavefront”;
  9. “WHY THE iFS 150? … Unbeatable precision; Unbeatable accuracy; Faster treatment; Faster results; Better results”;
  10. “Less than 1 in 1,000 patients requires glasses for distance vision following treatment”;
  11. that Optical Express “Carry out the largest number of procedures every week in the UK”, and
  12. “Europe’s number one provider”.
    Ultralase also challenged whether the following claims, which appeared as comparisons with other laser eye surgery providers on the back of ad (a), misleadingly implied that those services and statements were unique to Optical Express:
  13. “The same laser technology approved to treat NASA astronauts available in every clinic”;
  14. “Free comprehensive aftercare”;
  15. “Interest free credit available”;
  16. “Offer alternative solutions including Intraocular lens treatment”;
  17. “Founding member of the Eye Laser Association”;
  18. “Donate unwanted glasses to the developing world”;
  19. “Over 98% of patients would recommend us to their friends and family”;
  20. “World leading surgeons who have carried out over 700,000 procedures worldwide”;
  21. “Most advanced Wavefront and Intralase technology used exclusively in every clinic”.
  22. Ultralase challenged whether the testimonial attributed to Padraig Harrington in ad (a) misleadingly implied that he had undergone laser eye surgery at Optical Express, because they understood that was not the case.
  23. Ultralase challenged whether ad (b) also misleadingly implied that Padraig Harrington had his laser eye surgery carried out by Optical Express.

The full adjudication is available on the ASA website.

It’s worth noting that this adjudication is not an isolated incident. According to the ASA website, Optical Express has 4 adjudications against it with 3/4 upheld or partially upheld, ranging from December 2007 to date. The company has 7 informally resolved cases (where they agreed to amend or withdraw advertising without the need for a formal investigation), and 1 Database case (where the ASA has taken action about the obtaining, processing, management and use of personal information for the purposes of marketing products and services to the public through targeted and personalised mail).

In fairness, this number is comparable to the 4 adjudications and 4 informally resolved cases against Optimax (one of their closest competitors). Ultralase, on the other hand, only has one adjudication against it (that was not upheld) and 3 informally resolved cases.

The traditional media and social media ripples

To my knowledge, only one paper (The Scotsman) picked up the Optical Express ASA adjudication story. Of course, this was followed by the Watchdog report mentioned above.

On Twitter, Optical Express started trending on the night of the program, as illustrated in this chart from Trendistic:

While the trend line certainly shows an upsurge of activity at the precise time the Watchdog programe aired, 78 tweets at the apex is a minuscule number of tweets in the Twitter landscape.

As one would expect, the character of the comments was decidedly negative, although there were some customers coming to the company’s defence as well. Below is a sample of some of the comments on Twitter ranging from angry, surprised, suspicious, defensive, and humorous:

  • CarrieMcAdam: Am glad Watchdog investigated Optical Express. Apparently they do not have a good reputation amongst those working in the optics industry.
  • Angel_Dee: To add to my list of companies to avoid: Optical Express, Hillaries Blinds, Thames Water (:s) and Just Mechanic #Watchdog
  • catgrum1: @BBCWatchdog Shocking misleading bit on Optical Express tonight. I searched for the royal college guy out – he is a surgeon elsewhere. Fishy
  • stu_mayhew: Item about optical express laser eye surgery on Watchdog. Not sure I want to see Anne Robinson that clearly to be honest
  • JanFearnley: @bbcwatchdog Optical express aren’t the only ones – Ultralase are pants
  • BBWTBB: CB Just watched #watchdog and their report on laser eye surgery at Optical Express. I went there for mine a year ago and v.happy with them…
  • thecatizzle: @BBCWatchdogOptical Express quoted me one price and charged another, they ignore emails and complaints in sore, I feel cheated.
  • AlyEnglish: Optical Express – ripping everyone off and misleading advertising according to #watchdog
  • Tu_Smooth: Optical Express are getting exposed on #watchdog. I won’t be going their to get laser eye surgery anytime soon.
  • stephenmcaleer: Padraig Harrington is the spokesman for Optical Express Laser Eye surgery even though he got his eyes lasered somewhere else! Thanks Padraig
As a final note, Optical Express did not acknowledge the report or engage in the commentary on their Twitter profile, Facebook page, or website.

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About the author


LiveseySolar’s mission is to double the size of 150 cataract and refractive surgery practices. Using our proven marketing frameworks and deep market knowledge, our customers can predictably and sustainably grow their practices so that they can enjoy a healthy balance between both worlds – a successful private practice and a happy life.

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