Health Care Companies Using Data Mining to Access Personal Medical Information


Some private health care companies are gaining access to patients’ personal information without contacting them directly. They are getting the information they seek from indirect sources, such as pharmacies, data brokers and social networks.

These companies use hundreds of data points, including age, race and shopping habits, to identify a target market (in this case, people who are ill) and contact them with telemarketing calls and send them direct-mail pitches to participate in research. One of these companies, Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide, a drug-industry contractor, found patients for an obesity drug by targeting people who had characteristics that suggest sedentary lifestyle, such as eating at fast food restaurants often. 

How are they doing this? Based on a person’s credit card history, choice in automobile or lifestyle factors, companies can get a very clear idea about whether they have the disease state they are looking at. It’s no different from the targeted advertising that has been used in the retail industry for a number of years. When the focus switches to the healthcare industry, patient privacy concerns get raised. It is more difficult for patients to keep their medical conditions private.

HIPAA LogoNot a whole lot of privacy. Doctors, insurers, and other health care professionals cannot share or sell patients’ medical records without permission under the Health Insurance and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The law, however, does not cover any breadcrumbs that people may leave about their health outside of their medical records, such as when they buy something using a credit card or when or how they surf the Internet. Most people would be shocked to find out how little privacy they actually have outside of traditional healthcare.

This trend is being driven by the need to speed up recruitment for and completion of clinical trials. Drug makers sometimes need thousands of patients to participate in late-stage trials over several years. While the majority of patients are enrolled through more traditional means, such as healthcare providers, data mining and social networking accounted for about 14 percent of the tactics used by drug companies and their contractors.

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