Hoping to avoid a repeat of the Sunbeam affair, the AMA has launched a pre-emptive strike against would-be critics of its venture to market physician data.
HealthCarePro Connect, a joint venture of the AMA and Little Rock, Ark.-based data processor Acxiom Corp., is "absolutely not" comparable to the ill-fated 1997 deal, says Robert Musaccio, AMA senior vice president of business, publishing and membership services. The association was buried under an avalanche of negative publicity before breaking an agreement to accept royalties to allow appliance manufacturer Sunbeam to use its name on home healthcare products.
With HealthCarePro Connect, "This is not a royalty arrangement. This is a joint venture," Musaccio says. "We are not lending our name here. This is us. We govern the marketing."
The joint venture, announced in late September but not widely publicized until last month, will compile and sell specific data about physicians, via a secure Web site, to marketers under conditions specified by participating doctors.
However, according to the Nov. 13 edition of American Medical News, "Failure by physicians to participate will not stop HealthCarePro Connect from licensing the data it will collect from myriad sources."
Critics immediately seized upon this statement as an indication that the AMA was selling its soul to pharmaceutical manufacturers and other aggressive marketers. Drugmakers are expected to be among HealthCarePro Connect's largest customers.
The AMA reacted by issuing a statement from President-elect Richard Corlin, M.D. "Mistakenly, some articles . . . said that HealthCarePro Connect was formed to promote increased access by pharmaceutical companies to physicians," it said.
"On the contrary, HealthCarePro Connect helps improve the quality and accuracy of physician information, while enabling physicians to screen out unwanted and
Indeed, doctors may choose what kind of information is released, who can receive the data and how they prefer to be contacted, but those who do not specifically opt out of the program may open themselves up to a bombardment of sales calls and direct mail. "One cannot help to avoid the analogizing of this with the anxiety of other private information being sold," says attorney Bruce Fried, chairman of the health law group at Washington law firm Shaw Pittman (see related story on page 16).
Others fear what sort of data might wind up in the hands of the wrong people. Howard Landa, M.D., director of medical informatics at Loma Linda (Calif.) University Medical Center, asks: "Are insurance companies going to be selecting services based on what (physicians) bill? If that kind of information becomes available, then there will be a problem."
Still, Landa believes that the association is wary of another public relations fiasco. "The AMA has already taken a black eye from Sunbeam and certainly does not want another one," he says.
The AMA's Musaccio says HealthCarePro Connect will not give marketers access to current procedural technology codes, nor will it disclose physicians' prescribing information, though that information is readily available elsewhere.
"We publish (CPT codes) and we license them all the time to fulfill Medicare (reporting) obligations," he says, and notes that pharmaceutical companies can get prescribing information from national script databases.
Attorney Fried concurs: "A marketer who is eager to obtain information about physicians can do so in a number of ways."
Furthermore, HealthCarePro Connect CEO Elizabeth Ruske says, "The AMA has responsibly licensed their data for more than 50 years." She maintains that the new venture is a high-tech way to update and enhance the AMA's Physician Masterfile of the nation's 650,000 physicians and for the AMA to have an active-and revenue-generating-role in the dissemination of information.
"Our feedback has shown that physicians recognize that they need information and they want it delivered the way that it's most efficient for them," Ruske says. This information could include announcements of new products and services, promotional samples, invitations to sponsored events and industry news.
Musaccio says, "Basically (HealthCarePro Connect) is about choice and control. Based on the deluge of information available today, we wanted to step up to the plate and help physicians out."
HealthCarePro Connect initiatives to protect physicians include the formation of a privacy protection board, set for late January. "The business model is designed to allow physicians to combat violations of privacy," says Ruske.