Hospitals mine for patient customers on the Web

Think it's creepy how specific Facebook ads are to you? Does Google seem to know exactly what you are thinking?

Hospitals are leveraging that technology for digital marketing campaigns that are highly targeted to specific types of patients, Kaiser Health News and Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Although less than 150 of the nation's 6,000 hospitals use Google and Facebook to market services, that number is expected to grow, according to Rob Grant, executive vice president of hospital consulting firm eVariant in Simsbury, Ct.

For example, the University of Pennsylvania Health System spent $20,000 on Facebook and Google ads to search for candidates for its new lung transplant service. During a few weeks in August and September, more than 4,600 people clicked on the ads, and 36 people made appointments for consultations, KHN and the Inquirer reported. With each transplant raking in $100,000 in revenue, the advertising campaign may be money well spent.

However, some critics see the advertising dollars as wasted money that could be spent elsewhere.

"It saddens me to see an academic medical center go down this road," healthcare author H. Gilbert Welch said in the article.

Like other concerns about mining data from patient records, some skeptics worry about possible invasions of privacy and whether hospitals essentially are cherry-picking patients.

Although a common practice, data mining can help secure profits by singling out the best-paying patients for hospital business, according to patient advocates and privacy groups.

Nevertheless, hospitals may simply be leveraging marketing campaigns long used by other industries--direct-to-consumer rather than the traditional physician referral methods.

"We walk a fine line when we do this kind of advertising," Chris Boyer, director of digital marketing and communications at Inova Health System, based in Falls Church, Va., said in the KHN and the Inquirer article. The health system spent $1,500 on advertising its weight-loss programs on Facebook, resulting in 300 people clicking on the ads and 30 people registering for a weight-loss seminar, the article noted.

For more information:
- read the Kaiser Health News/Philadelphia Inquirer article

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