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All Things HIT

Feb 9 2012   8:15AM GMT

ePHI for marketing crossing the HIPAA line?

Posted by: AllinHIT

EHR adoption, as we know, has a snowball effect on the quality of patient care, the ability to access electronic protected health information (ePHI), avoiding the duplication of test and other services, also effecting patient compliance and engagement. Now, according to a new study, hospitals are using ePHI, as a marketing tool — matching medical needs to the services of the hospital. Here is an example of ePHI being a double-edge sword, cutting one way for better care, and the other for possibly crossing the HIPAA line.

According to a new study by Kaiser Health and USA Today, roughly 20% of U.S hospitals are now using ePHI to target certain services via direct mail. My first thought was that the mere fact of direct mailing clinical services to needy patients can easily reveal that information to everyone –from the postman, to your neighbors (haven’t you received your neighbors mail before?), and to others in the household you didn’t want tell. Hence, revealing private PHI and crossing the HIPAA line. 

Additionally, this study points out hospitals are data mining financial records, along with ePHI.  This marriage of data can result in what I call elitist healthcare!  What do I mean?  Well, sometimes you have to answer a question, with a question, and this is one of those cases. Here it goes: if a hospital only markets its new cancer care unit to those with commercial insurance and/or self-pay, will those on Medicare/Medicaid also have access, or does not knowing about the new care unit lessen the opportunity for access? This was a concern expressed by Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog.  He basically says “it is inherently discriminating against patients who have every right and need for medical information”. 

With all that said, hospitals, especially those designated as for profit, do have the right to market their services to targeted patients.  Hospitals, like many other businesses, can and should utilize their data mining capabilities for increasing revenue. I do believe there are ways to accomplish the goal, without, crossing the HIPAA line, and without creating an elitist effect. For example, making sure the unopened mailing doesn’t reveal the services of the hospital. As my mother used to tell us, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it!

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