Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Hospitals Use Patients' Personal Information for Fund-Raising

The San Francisco Chronicle reported about how not-for-profit hospitals use information about individual patients for fund-raising:

When patients check into hospitals or doctor offices, they presume their information will be kept in strictest confidence, but often, amid the pile of papers, they overlook fine print describing how their personal information can be farmed out for fundraising.

Hospitals and other health care organizations widely use patient information, without patients' explicit permission, to raise funds. To the dismay of privacy-rights advocates and some in the medical field, fundraising to benefit medical institutions is allowed under federal law.

Patients can opt out - after the fact.

Typically in medical settings, patients are handed booklets called 'notice of privacy practices.' The documents explain the numerous ways patient information can be used, including fundraising to benefit the health care operation. When patients sign the statement, it's an acknowledgement that they've received the information.

A Chronicle survey of a dozen Bay Area hospitals and medical centers found that the majority directly solicit current or former patients.
In response, the Chronicle interviewed Dr Steven Gugaro, president of the San Francisco Medical Society:

When you go to Macy's or Wal-Mart or buy a car, it has come to be expected that your name will be used for commercial purposes.

But it seems to me that physicians and hospitals have higher standards. People come to us ... because they are sick. They have an expectation that their names will be kept private, even the fact that they were treated by the doctor or hospital.

I'm sure that the vast majority of patients are not aware that this is done.

Furthermore, let me quote editorial comment from the Chronicle:

Few things in life make us feel as vulnerable as seeking help at a hospital. The patient's feelings of vulnerability, fear and anxiety are why the medical profession has historically held itself to the highest standards when it comes to protecting patient privacy - and why it is so outrageous to discover that hospitals and other health care organizations have been using patient information - without explicit permission - for fundraising purposes.

In the corporate marketing world, deceptive practices are fuzzy, and most consumers are rightfully wary of registering at Web sites, giving their phone numbers to department store clerks and signing up for free contests. But a patient seeking medical care should not have to worry about the fine print of the forms required to get treatment.

I have little to add, other than this seems to be another example of the adverse effects of running hospitals (and other health care organizations) like businesses rather than mission-oriented not-for-profit organizations, especially in an era when business ethics often seems like an oxymoron. Hospitals need leadership that put the mission of caring for patients ahead of the relentless pursuit of more money.

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