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    Kaiser Health News: Hospitals mine patient records in search of customers

    Kaiser Health News (an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan health policy research and communication organization) reports that hospitals are searching the medical data of patients to figure out ways to advertise health services to them:

    When the oversized postcard arrived last August from Provena St. Joseph Medical Center promoting a lung cancer screening for current or former smokers over 55, Steven Boyd wondered how the hospital had found him. […]

    Provena didn’t send the mailing to everyone who lived near the hospital, just those who had a stronger likelihood of having smoked based on their age, income, insurance status and other demographic criteria.

    The non-profit facility is one of a growing number of hospitals using their patients’ health and financial records to help pitch their most lucrative services, such as cancer, heart and orthopedic care. As part of these direct mail campaigns, they are also buying detailed information about local residents compiled by consumer marketing firms — everything from age, income and marital status to shopping habits and whether residents have children or pets at home.

    Hospitals say they are promoting needed services, such as cancer screenings and cholesterol tests, but they often use the data to target patients with private health insurance, which typically pay higher rates than government coverage. […]

    While the strategies are increasing revenues, they are drawing fire from patient advocates and privacy groups who criticize the hospitals for using private medical records to pursue profits. […]

    Deven McGraw, director of the health privacy project at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, says federal law allows hospitals to use confidential medical records to keep patients informed about services that may help them.

    “You want health providers to communicate to patients about health options that may be beneficial,” McGraw says. “But sometimes this is about generating business for a new piece of equipment that the hospital just bought.”

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