Complaint says Web health sites push medications

QualityHealth is a popular health website with more than 20 million registered users that offers online medical information and e-mail newsletters on a variety of topics, including diabetes, allergies, asthma and arthritis.

But according to a complaint filed Tuesday with the Federal Trade Commission, site visitors who provide personal details about themselves might not be aware that QualityHealth collects information about people’s medical conditions, preferred medicines and treatment plans and uses it to profile its users for prescription drug marketing.

Rob Rebak, chief executive of QualityHealth, a company also known as Marketing Technology Solutions of Delaware, did not return a request for comment.

QualityHealth is one of a number of companies cited in the complaint to the FTC filed by four nonprofit privacy and consumer advocacy groups. In the complaint, the Center for Digital Democracy, U.S. PIRG, Consumer Watchdog and the World Privacy Forum charged that online marketing of medications, products and medical services posed fundamental new risks to consumer privacy and health because of sophisticated data collection and patient-profiling techniques.

Asserting that such techniques are unfair and deceptive, the groups asked the FTC to investigate the health marketing used by some popular sites including Google, HealthCentral, Everyday Health, WebMD and Sermo, a site for medical professionals.

Some sites, the complaint said, were not transparent enough about how they tracked people through users’ online heath searches and discussions or how they categorized and marketed to their conditions. Other sites may not be entirely open about how they create and use data profiles about users or blur the line between independent and sponsored content, the complaint said.

The concern, said Ed Mierzwinski, the consumer program director at U.S. PIRG, is not just about data mining and marketing that could influence patients to seek drugs they do not need or to spend more money on branded drugs rather than generics. More broadly, employers or health insurers could gain access to the consumers’ data profiles, leading to potential problems or penalties against the consumer, he said.

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