Thursday, March 26, 2009

“Live Life to the Youngest” with the RealAge® Test? Nah...

I’m on Facebook – some of you know that. I use very, very few of the hundreds of Facebook apps but I confess, for example, to recently nominating my “Top Five Movies.” The rock-bottom fact is, there’s a damn huge amount of personal information about me on the Worldwide Web.

I admit to being an active participant in life online. What I have NOT done is join RealAge and Mehmet Oz so I can “live life to the youngest.” I have not taken the RealAge® Test.

That, in my view, turns out to be a good thing. Mike Damon of Damon Medical Communications sent over a New York Times article, “Online Age Quiz Is a Window for Drug Makers” by reporter Stephanie Clifford. RealAge is fuzzing up the fact that it’s selling participants’ personal, medical information to drug companies…your basic invasion of privacy, not to mention maybe (just maybe) being against the HIPAA rules. Those are the rules that the government has set to protect intimate health-related information.

The article says: RealAge’s privacy policy does not specifically address the firm’s relationship with drug companies, but does state, in part, “we will share your personal data with third parties to fulfill the services that you have asked us to provide to you,” and it adds test results to its database only when respondents become RealAge members. Some critics, however, charge that consumers do not have enough information when they join.
Unlike certain media outlets, I don’t have an automatic bias against pharmaceutical companies. I even wonder if the New York Times would have even looked at this story if it did not involve “drug companies.”

Okay – 27 million people have taken the RealAge quiz. They are (as a group) not very concerned about what happens to their intimate health information. As a marketer, though, I think there’s an ethical problem here. Despite RealAge protestations, my sense is that the website has not been completely transparent in its business relationships with the drug companies.

Will people get upset about this particular issue? I bet not – not when it involves a doctor who regularly appears on Oprah. After all, it’s not AIG bonuses.


Anonymous said...

They are collecting PHI (personal health information), which is covered by HIPAA. They do allow the user to select a SSL connection, but don't force it, and at the end they ask for your mailing address and name to receive coupons in the mail. This coupled with the health information provided in the test constitutes PHI and needs to be protected by them, which is impossible outside of a SSL connection. If they are subject to the HIPAA they need to disclose every loss of PHI.

Richard Laurence Baron said...

Thanks, Anonymous. You've provided excellent information - I appreciate it and my readers will too.

Michael said...

Nice piece, Richard!

As I was reading the original NYT piece, I was caught between worrying about privacy and marveling at the brilliance of the strategy:

A compelling offer
Heathy lifestyle info provided for free
Data collected
Data sold

But then I realized that if it's illegal for the drug companies to gather, record and use individual health info in promoting their products, then it should also be illegal for them to do the same thing by proxy.

Seems like the law is inadequate if the intent is truly to prevent inappropriate use of personal health information.

Lee Hayden said...

Richard: Partly from half instinct and half suspicion, I don't pariticipate in the various options on Facebook. I suspected that things like this could happen, I was hoping it was mostly my overactive imagination. Thanks...