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Medical Center Shares Patient Information With Fundraiser

July 2012

Sidney M. Wolfe, M.D.

How would you feel if, in addition to providing good medical care, your medical center disclosed to an affiliated fundraising foundation enough information about you and your specific contacts with the medical center to allow the fundraiser to solicit money from you as a “grateful patient”? The fundraiser might even send a solicitation letter from your doctor or a doctor at the clinic you attended, making the appeal even more “personal.”

Although this process may be legal (that is, it does not violate the federal patient-privacy laws allowing hospital foundations to collect some private patient data — without the patient’s consent or authorization — in order to target potential donors), there is reason to conclude that it is highly unethical.

A June 2012 in-depth investigation by Des Moines Register reporter Clark Kauffman unearthed some disturbing information about such practices, called the Grateful Patient Program, at the University of Iowa Hospitals, a leading medical center:

“The fundraising contract between the university and the foundation is signed by the school’s president, Sally Mason. It indicates that both the university and the foundation are to collaborate on donor-prospect research, which can include what they call ‘wealth screenings of patients.’”

Kauffman used eye-care patients as an example of the medical center’s data-sharing practices: The fundraiser solicits these patients using letters signed by the head of the ophthalmology department, who is then told by the fundraiser which of his upcoming patients are donors. When these patients come in for treatment, they receive a thank-you from the doctor.

Kauffman also asked Health Research Group staff to comment on this issue. Deputy director Michael Carome provided the following response:

“If people actually knew this sort of thing was going on, there would be a significant number of them disturbed by it. … The fundamental practice is exploitative ... and in my view there is no way to make this work in a way that would be ethical.”

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