Medical Histories Turned into Marketing Data

December 16, 2014

Americans have a tendency to over share information through social media, which can lead to some off-putting online revelations. However, there’s one group of people out there who doesn’t mind reading a detailed status update about your cold symptoms: advertisers. In today’s increasingly personalized marketing landscape, companies are desperate for data about their customers. Along with standard stats like age and income, consumers’ medical histories have now become tools for target marketing.

While data miners can’t legally access confidential medical records, there are plenty of other sources they can draw from to learn about a person’s health. Besides paying attention to social media chatter, marketers also aggregate data from health-related apps like WebMD as well as records of people’s online purchases. Once a person becomes associated with a particular ailment, their name and address will end up on a database listed with dozens of others who share the same disease. For instance, 42-year-old IT worker Dan Abate recently found his name in a database that included millions of people with “diabetes interest.” He didn’t find out about it until a company who bought the list accidently posted all of his information on their website.

This breach of privacy wasn’t the only thing that infuriated Abate: he has never been diagnosed with diabetes. “I could understand if I was voluntarily putting this medical information out there,” Abate said. “But I don’t have diabetes, and I don’t want my information out there to be sold.” And these disease directories don’t stop at diabetes: one list includes 2.3 million cancer patients while another contains the names of 14 million people afflicted with depression. Getting access to one of these lists costs clients around 15 cents per name. The databases are also subdivided by categories like race, sex and location, providing marketers with even more info to use for targeted ads. Currently, there’s no way of telling how much of your medical info is available for sale, unless you happen to stumble upon your name in a directory like Abate did. A proposed bill in Congress may one day allow consumers to opt out of any targeted marketing campaigns, but for now data mining remains largely unregulated.



  1. What’s an important fact that users of social media must remember?
  1. Is it ethical for marketers to provide information such as medical data to their clients?


Source: Shannon Pettypiece and Jordan Robertson, “Did You Know You Had Diabetes? It’s All Over the Internet,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, September 11, 2014. Photo by: Fotos GOVBA.