Mobile Ads Target Individuals Seeking Healthcare Services

Many consumers have accepted that their smartphones are essentially tracking devices… so what’s the harm in turning their trips to the doctor or the emergency department (ED) into an opportunity to target them for advertisements for personal injury lawyers? That’s one of the justifications that advertising firms are employing to engage in the practice of “geofencing”—an ultra-targeted form of online advertising.

In a practice dubbed “digital ambulance chasing” by National Public Radio (NPR), digital advertising firms are creating digital perimeters around healthcare providers such as an ED. Once a consumer crosses this perimeter—or a “geofence”—advertisements for personal injury lawyers will appear on their social media feeds or other websites where ads are typically seen, according to a report by NPR.

“It’s really, I think, the closest thing an attorney can do to putting a digital kiosk inside of an emergency room,” Bill Kakis, who runs the Long Island, NY-based firm Tell All Digital, told NPR. He added that geo-targeting is the fastest growing part of his business, and that his clients had created geofences around nearly every hospital in downstate New York.

Geofencing isn’t a new practice. Smartphone users might notice that location-specific advertisements show up when they’ve traveled from one place to another—they may notice ads for services or spam emails for coupons. However, some health privacy advocates argue that the data collection and information sharing that goes into targeting these ads is intrusive. Especially when healthcare data is involved in domains outside of HIPAA’s purview.

In Massachusetts, prosecutors settled a case in which a digital advertising firm sent out ads from a Christian pregnancy counseling and adoption agency to the mobile devices of individuals going into Planned Parenthood. The Massachusetts attorney general was able to ban that agency from advertising in Massachusetts on the grounds that it violated the state’s consumer protection regulations.

“We just want to make sure that companies aren’t exploiting information in violation of existing privacy laws with respect to health information that’s so sensitive,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey told NPR.

Mary Butler is the associate editor at Journal of AHIMA.

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