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Health information privacy threatened in race for marketing data

The recent repeal of broadband privacy rules may affect how consumers' health information is used for marketing and advertising purposes.

Since its introduction, the internet has offered a wealth of information and answers to common household questions. The internet has helped many individuals answer health-related questions and find home remedies, as well as unofficial clinical advice for different health conditions.

Up until recently, individual health-related searches and health postings were not extensively used to drive custom ads for specific health services. But with the recent repeal of the broadband privacy regulation that limited what internet providers could and couldn't do with their clients' internet browsing data, more questions and concerns are coming up surrounding the protection of personally identifiable information (PII).

To find new customers, drug companies and hospitals may seek anyone who can provide consumer marketing data for individuals who fit their desired profile, even if that likely means breaking those individuals' trust.

This raises further questions about what kind of data health-related browsing history creates, and whether it causes health information privacy and HIPAA concerns if internet providers know what healthcare sites customers are browsing, and then sell that information to marketers.

For most consumers, the data that would indicate what health issues they may be experiencing would reside in the different searches they perform and sites they visit frequently. Diabetic patients are likely to search for recipes for healthy meals that can keep their sugar levels in check. Individuals with recent news of cancer or kidney problems are likely to visit online support groups to get more information about that condition. Patients occasionally share health information on social media sites, as well.

Previously, health condition indicators were not available to be mined and used for marketing purposes. However, with the elimination of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation that required internet providers to obtain the consumer's permission to use their browsing data and keyword searches, it is now possible for companies to build a profile that can later be used to target those individuals with specific ads.

Several companies have successfully monetized the information captured and built profiles for different individuals. Sites like Facebook and Google have been able to generate billions of dollars in revenue from ads this way. Internet providers have an opportunity to compete with social media sites, since they can intercept far more consumer data and use it to build a more detailed individual profile.

Health information privacy risks complicate patient targeting

When it comes to targeting individuals with health services based on a detected health condition, things get a little complicated. Health information privacy laws and HIPAA guidelines regulate the collection and use of PII. This means that if internet providers plan to use a consumer's browsing history to sell ad space to drug manufacturers or healthcare professionals without the consumer's consent, it may raise legal and ethical questions.

Healthcare organizations have always been extremely careful maintaining the balance when it comes to their communications and marketing initiatives. In most cases, hospitals can only target consumers with generic, paper-based or digital ads. Even if a hospital chooses to use Facebook advertising, it generally focuses on reminding patients about the hospital brand and general health services.

Most hospitals, medical practices and drug manufacturers adjusted their marketing strategies over the years to include the use of social media to attract new customers or patients. However, with the additional consumer marketing data that could be sold by internet providers, such as health information, organizations may purchase data that enables them to target a set of consumers who are not using their services.

But before any internet providers begin on this new journey of monetizing the data they collect from their customers, many who oppose the loosening of the rules for internet providers are likely to take their opposition to the customers and the courts in order to ensure health information privacy.

Next Steps

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This was last published in June 2017

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