The American Medical Association is still fine-tuning a controversial new joint venture aimed at providing marketers-including pharmaceutical companies-with more information than ever before about America's 650,000 practicing physicians.
In fact, HealthCarePro Connect, announced with great fanfare about a year ago, has been delayed by several months and will debut sometime before the end of the year under a new name, Preference Solutions, officials said. A "soft launch" of the product is tentatively scheduled for the AMA's interim meeting in early December.
Elizabeth Ruske, the company's chief executive officer, said part of the delay was caused when officials discovered that an existing company already was using a name similar to HealthCarePro Connect. The new name better describes the purpose of the company, Ruske said, which is to provide physicians and other healthcare workers with a way to select how, when-or even if-they are contacted by marketers.
"We used it as an opportunity to say what we're really all about-and that's preference," Ruske said. "We figured taking the Preference Solutions name would make more sense."
The for-profit AMA subsidiary is a joint venture between the Chicago-based doctors' group and Acxiom Corp., a Little Rock, Ark.-based marketing firm that specializes in database management services. Preference Solutions will supplement the information available in the AMA's Physician Masterfile, the so-called gold standard of doctor databases, which lists information on about 875,000 physicians and earns the organization approximately $23 million annually through its sale to marketers.
Ruske said the Preference Solutions database will feature additional information that is not included in the master file as well as data on a far larger population of healthcare workers-including nurse practitioners, physician assistants, optometrists, podiatrists and others in the industry. The new database of about 1.3 million names will be particularly attractive to marketers, Ruske said.
"We realized that, in order for us to be useful to marketers and pharmaceutical companies, they need to have more than just (doctors)," she said. "It's deeper and it goes beyond doctors-and that's why a pharmaceutical company would want that information."
The AMA has been criticized for selling personal data about America's doctors to drug companies, which then can use that information to help create prescribing profiles as a way to target specific groups of physicians. But AMA officials, who skirted efforts during the annual meeting in June to restrict the use of the master file, say the information contained in its database is available from many other sources.
"If the AMA never touched that file, the practice would go on with us or without us," one AMA source said.
Still, the AMA's marketing effort continues to anger some rank-and-file physicians, who believe it is a violation of their privacy and only adds to the cost of drugs. America's pharmaceutical industry, in fact, spends about $15 billion per year to market its products.
"In my opinion, the whole pharmaceutical industry is riddled with unethical practices," said Chris Hays, M.D., a family practitioner in Park City, Utah. "For the AMA to sell this list of names to drug companies, there ought to be more people who'll stand up and say it's wrong. Where are the pharmaceutical companies coming up with the money (to underwrite these marketing programs)? It's coming out of the price of the drugs they sell-they're making billions of dollars overcharging for their products."
The AMA's master file includes the physician's mailing address, self-designated practice specialty, medical school, year of graduation, graduate medical education, licensing data, board certification, date of birth, and telephone and fax numbers.
It also has two important pieces of information not included in many other generic databases: the physician's Drug Enforcement Administration number-which is used to verify that the doctor is authorized under federal law to prescribe controlled substances-and a unique medical education number, which the AMA assigns to individuals when they start medical school, allowing the organization to carefully track careers.
Ruske said Preference Solutions will "supplement" the masterfile, creating marketing opportunities by offering a much larger database along with more detailed demographic information about doctors and their practices. She said it would not cannibalize the steady business generated each year for the AMA by the master file.
Preference Solutions addresses concerns from some critics by allowing physicians to control how they are contacted and what types of information they receive, Ruske said. At the same time, marketing companies will be able to control costs and improve response rates by targeting their services to match the preferences of physicians-a key selling point, she said.
"We believe every physician will want to participate in this preference service," she said. "If we do this right, there won't be anyone who doesn't do it. This is the mechanism for doctors to control the information that's coming at them."
Of course, doctors must take the time to provide their personal preference-and may also choose to opt out of the database, withholding all information from marketers. But Ruske said she doesn't know whether there is any way to ensure that every doctor in the AMA's master file will be made aware of this option. If a physician elects to opt out of the database, she said, "they should come to our Web site."
Ruske said there is "preliminary" talk about soliciting insurance companies or pharmaceutical firms to provide paid "sponsorships" that would help spread the word to physicians about Preference Solutions. Asked about the concerns that might arise from a drug company's involvement, she said, "I'm not seeking financial support from pharmaceutical companies. We're trying to make the pharmaceutical companies understand the positive value of knowing how a physician wants to be communicated with. We want to give the physician a voice."