Ready for Your Health Insurer to Know Your Online Shopping Habits?

Marketers have access to more consumer information than ever (even if some of it's outdated garbage). But advances is analytics are currently creeping toward health care. Are you ready for your insurer to know how many cars you own?

The New York Times reports that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has an insurance arm with 2.4 million members, and in the never-ending battle to deliver better care AND cut costs, they're pioneering something called "predictive health analytics." For instance: If you've got an asthma patient who's refilling rescue inhalers at a too-rapid clip, you'd maybe send a reminder to see her primary-care doc and work out a better drug regimen. Pretty straightforward stuff.

But U.P.M.C. is ingesting information that goes much, much deeper than you'd assume:

But the insurer recently bolstered its forecasting models with details on members' household incomes, education levels, marital status, race or ethnicity, number of children at home, number of cars and so on. One of the sources for the consumer data U.P.M.C. used was Acxiom, a marketing analytics company that obtains consumers' information from both public records and private sources.

That's when it got weird: "The insurer turned up a few unexpected correlations: Mail-order shoppers and Internet users, for example, were likelier than some other members to use more emergency services." Hey, it's time-consuming running down all those DEALS DEALS DEALS. How can I be expected to bother with proper preventative care?

"It brings me another layer of vision, of view, that helps me figure out better prediction models and allocate our clinical resources," explained chief analytics officer Pamela Peele. The correlation could help the hospital figure out who's homebound, for instance. (U.P.M.C. hasn't acted on the info yet.)

Credit card companies and other marketers have had access to this sort of info for a long time. But there's something alarming about seeing the same tactics applied to basics like healthcare. Sure, it could really help improve outcomes. It could also turn into a dystopian shit-show. Here's what one healthcare analytics company floated recently:

In a blog post this month, Bill Andrae, MedSeek's vice president for client strategy, described other techniques for influencing well-insured patients. Hospitals could send birthday messages "to all high-value men and women," he wrote, or notify "profitable individuals 18 and above" about special round-the-clock health care call-in lines staffed by nurses, and encourage those revenue-generating patients to schedule medical tests or appointments.

After I sent questions by email, MedSeek removed the blog post. The company did not respond to the questions themselves.

Super excited for America's hospitals to be run like a Prada store!

Photo via Celiafoto/Shutterstock.