Post Date: December 17, 2014

There is a new advertising technique being engaged in by drugmakers and internet companies that straddles the line between telemedicine and privacy invasion. This new technique involves using matchback power to send targeted advertisements to people based on their pharmaceutical purchases.

How Matchback Power Works

Both the Hippocratic Oath and federal law requires doctors, hospitals, and pharmacists to maintain the secrecy of both health and prescription records for patients. But, while they can’t share this information, they can code this information into a database for various legitimate purposes. And, since the database is coded, anyone reading through it is unable to identify the names of the patients.

Despite this information being coded, internet data firms have found a trick to effectively circumvent the coding. They use the same coding software and algorithms to code databases full of internet users. Then, matchback is used to link the two databases based on the identical coded names.

How Drug Companies Use This Information to Increase Sales

Once these two databases are calibrated, internet companies are able to target advertising based on the pharmaceutical purchases of the person surfing the internet. These internet companies then offer contracts to drug companies to target appropriate advertisements. Matchback advertising increases the likelihood of a patient approaching a doctor about a specific drug by between 12% and 25%, which makes this a lucrative technique. In fact, the technique is so successful that drug companies either pony up the advertising costs or fall behind in the market as competitors take advantage of targeted sales while they don’t.

The Questionable Ethics of Matchback Power

Technically, the drug companies don’t know the identities of the people seeing their ads. If a person buys Viagra, they will see male enhancement ads, but the drug companies have no clue who is seeing the ads that they publish. So, by a strict definition, secrecy is maintained. But, this procedure skirts the line and privacy advocates are concerned by it. There are methods to effectively reverse the coding and discover names and the advertising preys on people who are vulnerable. It is a technique that will likely see much government scrutiny in coming years.