Hospitals mine patient records in search of customers
When the oversized postcard arrived last August from Provena St. Joseph Medical Center promoting a lung cancer screening for current or former smokers over 55, Steven Boyd wondered how the hospital had found him.
Boyd, 59, of Joliet, Ill., had smoked for decades, as had his wife, Karol.
Provena didn’t send the mailing to everyone who lived near the hospital, just those who had a stronger likelihood of having smoked based on their age, income, insurance status and other demographic criteria.
The non-profit facility is one of a growing number of hospitals using their patients’ health and financial records to help pitch their most lucrative services, such as cancer, heart and orthopedic care. As part of these direct mail campaigns, they are also buying detailed information about local residents compiled by consumer marketing firms — everything from age, income and marital status to shopping habits and whether residents have children or pets at home.
Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a California-based consumer advocacy group, says he is bothered by efforts to “cherry pick” the best-paying patients.
“When marketing is picking and choosing based on people’s financial status, it is inherently discriminating against patients who have every right and need for medical information,” Heller says. Deven McGraw, director of the health privacy project at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, says federal law allows hospitals to use confidential medical records to keep patients informed about services that may help them.
“You want health providers to communicate to patients about health options that may be beneficial,” McGraw says. “But sometimes this is about generating business for a new piece of equipment that the hospital just bought.”
Using such information for marketing “creeps closer to the line” between what is legal and what is not, she says.
I don’t see anything wrong with a business offering specials, or discounts, or whatever to “valued customers” even though there’s a cringe factor because we’re not used to hospitals doing it.