Should hospitals mine patient data for targeted marketing?

Hospitals and health systems continue to use health and demographic data from patient records to target advertisements, despite concerns about patient privacy violations and cherry-picking affluent patients.

For years, OhioHealth and Mount Carmel Health System have been mining data from patient records to target certain mailings and messages, such as reminders about mammograms, colorectal screenings and health fairs, The Columbus Dispatch reported.

Questions, however, arise over the growing prevalence of "customer-relationship management" in healthcare, especially whether the practice complies with healthcare privacy laws. OhioHealth and Mount Carmel maintain their targeted marketing adheres to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) rules by encrypting data so marketers can't access patients' health info, the article noted.

"I never see any individual's patient information. We're very protective and respectful of patient data," Laura McCoy, OhioHealth vice president of marketing and communications, told the Dispatch.

OhioHealth also uses household income to help determine who should receive certain mailings, a strategy that patient advocates and privacy groups say is an abuse of data mining to boost profits by going after the best-paying patients.

Amid the scrutiny, hospitals are increasingly incorporating patient health data into marketing efforts, especially with the rise of electronic health records and social media use. In fact, almost 25 percent of the nation's 6,000 hospitals use customer-relationship management marketing techniques, the Dispatch noted. As of June, fewer than 150 hospitals use Google and Facebook to market services, although that number is expected to grow, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

Patients have mixed feelings on hospitals using their health information to target marketing materials; some accept the practice if their data is secure while others want only their providers to use that information, according to the Dispatch.

Meanwhile, many cancer patients are okay with researchers having access to their electronic health information, according to a June study from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Almost 60 percent said they are willing to share their de-identified data to support research activities.

To learn more:
- read the Dispatch article