This comes as no surprise to me. I believe it may help explain hospital's cavalier attitudes towards the risks of today's commercial health IT.
It's all about money.
We already knew that (for example, see my Feb. 2011 post "Does EHR-Incited Upcoding (Also Known as 'Fraud') Need Investigation by CMS, And Could it Explain HIT Irrational Exuberance?"), but the following news adds to the pecuniary motivations:
Kaiser Health News
Critics say hospitals cherry pick best-paying patients
By Phil Galewitz
KHN Staff Writer
Feb 05, 2012
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.
Boyd, 59, of Joliet, Ill., had smoked for decades, as had his wife, Karol.
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 nonprofit center 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 they 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. At an industry conference last year, Provena Health marketing executive Lisa Lagger said such efforts had helped attract higher-paying patients, including those covered by "profitable Blue Cross and less Medicare."
Not to mention helping exclude those covered by Medicaid, or the uninsured.
I don't recall anywhere on the releases at area hospitals saying they would be using their own clinical data for marketing purposes (which likely involve third party contractors). It might be in the fine print, however. I also don't recall any place to sign and give informed consent to the use of experimental medical devices such as the EHR's used to collect the marketing data, either, but that's addressed elsewhere on this blog such as here.
Strategy Draws Fire
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.
Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a California-based consumer advocacy group, says he is bothered by efforts to "cherry pick" the best-paying patients.
"When marketing is picking and choosing based on people's financial status, it is inherently discriminating against patients who have every right and need for medical information," Heller says. "This is another example of how our health system has gone off the rails."
I would go beyond "off the rails." How about, straight to perverse? EHR data is used to attract paying customers and then expose them to risk of being maimed due to the disruptive nature of the HIT itself.
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 inform patients about things that may help them.
"If it's technically legal, we can do it, and who gives a damn about the ethics?" is what is being expressed here.
"You want health providers to communicate to patients about health options that may be beneficial to their health," McGraw says. "But sometimes this is about generating business for a new piece of equipment that the hospital just bought."
Using such information for marketing "creeps closer to the line," between what is legal and what is not, she says.
And helping recoup the costs of that hundred-million dollar EHR setup, too.
... Tess Niehaus, vice president of marketing at St. Anthony’s Medical Center in St. Louis, says the approach has been quite successful and makes no apologies for going after the most lucrative business.
"We are here to serve everybody but we market for good paying patients because it preserves our ability to serve everyone," she says. [And the ability to proffer generous executive salaries and raises - ed.]
"Good paying patients?" Does that imply there are bad paying patients? (Might those "bad paying patients" be predominantly the elderly and/or minorities?)
While the practice is legal, most people would be shocked to know their records may be shared with nonmedical personnel and outside firms to help hospitals attract business, says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, an advocacy group based in California. "I am really bothered by the overabundance of information that is flowing that is unnecessary and risky," she says.
As I've written before, don't worry, your most sensitive data's safe in the hands of the extremely skilled health IT professionals at most hospitals.
While hospitals may profit from offering cholesterol tests and mammograms, the big payoff is in what those screenings may lead to – additional tests and procedures, including surgery.
"It's all about downstream revenue," says Patrick Kane, senior vice president of marketing at Cape Cod Healthcare in Massachusetts who used such approaches at Wellmont Health System in Kingsport, Tenn. "The old adage in business is that it’s easier to sell an existing customer new services, rather than find a new customer."
So much for medical professionalism and conservatism. At least Mr. Kane admits it's all about money.
... Provena's Lagger says the approach boosted the system's bottom line so it could serve people regardless of insurance status. "This is a means to an end," she says.
The ends don't always justify the means, but that may be a hard concept for some in today's amoral culture to understand.
... Much of the expertise for such campaigns is provided by three consulting firms -- CPM Marketing of Madison, Wis., Medseek of Birmingham Ala. and New York-based Thomson Reuters. They typically charge hospitals $100,000 a year or more.
CPM, which merged in November with Denver, Colo.-based HealthGrades, a health ratings firm, added 100 new hospitals last year to give it a total of 400. Medseek works with more than 250 hospitals and Thomson Reuters, with 150.
Remember Darrin Stevens on Bewitched? "Larry, I've got a great idea for a new campaign! Let's troll for patients using their private data! Never mind that I have donkey ears today... that darn mother in law of mine, Endora!"
The targeting worked in the case of Boyd, who called the number on the back and scheduled the CT scan a few days later. The $169 test showed his lungs were clear, but found potential blockages in coronary arteries that his Provena-affiliated doctor is monitoring.
"In hindsight, I’m glad I had the test," he says.
No mention of patients who had unnecessary testing and interventions that led to bad outcomes ... or patients injured by the very EHR systems that make such marketing possible.