It reads rather like a futuristic novel: a patient gets a call from his physician’s office asking him to come in. When he arrives, the stern looking nurse ushers him into an exam room. The doctor arrives and says, “Mr. Smith, it has been reported to me that you have not visited the gym in several weeks. You also have been frequenting a certain sports bar, and buying a lot of pizza. You are on my High Risk list.”
This scenario isn’t science fiction. It’s on the edge of reality for Carolinas HealthCare who has joined the dive into Big Data with a unique aim in mind – and a strong Healthcare PR campaign. By analyzing the credit card purchases of over two million people, Carolinas HealthCare wants to identify those who are practicing personal habits that may make them sick in the future. Doctors can intervene early, perhaps even before the patient gets sick.
The fact that our purchasing habits are grist for analytical data mills is not new, and, oddly enough, most Americans don’t seem too worried about it. But, as Ronn Torossian points out, this use slips into a new realm that may backfire on Carolinas Healthcare’s public image.
Carolinas HealthCare is a southern powerhouse, a vast network of over 900 medical care centers that includes hospitals, doctors’ offices, surgical centers, and nursing homes. It argues that it has taken this step in order to help protect patients’ health. The company claims that by identifying high-risk patients and intervening, lives could be saved.
Ronn Torossian argues that their PR explanation sounds a little too altruistic to be completely true. They may not realize that this makes them appear as the embodiment of “Big Brother Watching You”. It is one thing when personal data is gathered and fed to companies who analyze it to sell us more products. In some ways, consumers seem to see that as using the Internet to get an edge. But, it is impersonal, and not bothersome.
But, Carolinas HealthCare wants to use this data to profile a person, draw conclusions, and predict possible outcomes. Torrassion is surprised how little they seem to realize that many patients are bound to see this as invasive, and possibly offensive.
The PR backlash has already begun, and Carolinas HealthCare hasn’t responded, yet. This has been called a breach of privacy, and detractors say it could radically change the doctor-patient relationship. Instead of a physician and patient exchanging necessary and pertinent information, the doctor could be placed in the role of Grand Inquisitor, armed with data bought from data collection warehouses.
From a PR standpoint, Carolinas HealthCare is running a great risk by only standing by its ‘we want to help people’ stance. Though it may be partially true, a growing movement doubts this is the only reason. Torossian advises that Carolinas HealthCare would do better to adopt a more transparent approach to its change of policy, especially since it is spearheading a new approach, and the eyes of healthcare providers and patients around the country are watching.
The elephant in the room is Obamacare. It is no coincidence that this move comes now, when the new governmental health regulations provide payment based on how well a hospital heals people vs. services provided. Hospitals can be fined for a variety of faults, including having a patient readmitted too often. Carolinas HealthCare’s move may be seen more as a financial maneuver than an altruistic gesture.
Right now, the southern healthcare company is running the risk of damaging their reputation by not responding directly to questions about their motives, and their stance on possible ethical issues involved in their actions. Ronn Torossian thinks that they need to quickly reconsider their PR strategy in order to prevent themselves from being seen as a mercenary, invasive health corporation. It will be interesting to see how the entire situation develops.