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Will Heartbleed Wreak Havoc for Health Care?

heartbleedIdentity theft is a growing national concern, and no industry is exempt from the fallout — a fact that those in the health care marketing industry can ill-afford to ignore. We need look no further than the evening news to uncover the cause for this concern. Identity theft has made for some alarming recent headlines.

This past Christmas, we heard about identity theft issues at retail giant Target. The news broke right in the heart of the holiday shopping rush. Target had, according to a story released by NBC News, a major data breach that impacted as many as 40 million of its customers. Shoppers who used credit or debit cards to make purchases at the store may have had their names, card numbers, and even their three-digit security codes stolen. 

Target later revealed that its computer system had been hacked, and took steps to correct the issue. In addition to credit and debit card numbers, the thieves may have accessed other private customer data, as well, including email addresses and phone numbers.

Identity theft isn’t just confined to retail.

Concurrent with these threats in the retail sector has been an alarming rise in medical identity theft. A recent Kaiser Health News article by Michael Ollove likened the growing threat to a virulent disease.

According to Ollove, medical identity theft comprised an alarming 43 percent of all reported incidences of identity theft in 2013. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that more than 60 million people may have had their private medical records breached since the department started keeping records in 2009.

And now, there's Heartbleed.

The Heartbleed bug has brought even more alarming news for retailers and health care providers alike. Called "the bug that broke the Internet" by ethical hacker David Kennedy in a CNN interview, Heartbleed is a programming vulnerability that makes it possible for hackers to siphon off private user data undetected. And Heartbleed's damage has been far reaching. The vulnerability was made public on April 7, but almost two weeks later, a New York Times article reported, nearly one million web servers were still at risk.

Will Heartbleed wreak havoc for health care?

So, how does all of this affect the health care marketing industry?

The immediate implications are obvious. If your company handles sensitive private data, it may be at risk you use the vulnerable OpenSourceSS. You must, therefore, take pains to see that this vulnerability is resolved posthaste. But, even after you have secured your computer system, the fallout may continue. Target's mishandling of customer data continued to plague the company long after the initial problem was repaired. Its earnings fell, according to reports from the Wall Street Journal, by 46 percent after the information breach was revealed. Customers simply did not feel safe doing business there.

Your patients, like retail customers, are consumers.

In this atmosphere of concern, the increasing power of health care consumers cannot be ignored. There was a time when health care consumers did not have many choices. If they received poor quality health care or bad customer service, they simply had to put up with it. Now, however, these same consumers are finding that technology has given them more power over their health care.

They are learning to shop around for better prices and better service. Some insurance companies even provide website "wizards" to allow their customers to compare prices at facilities within their network before making a decision about which doctor, lab or hospital to choose.

When presented with so many choices, patients will pick the companies that make them feel the most secure — physically and financially. In fact, when asked to rate 33 insurance company attributes in the 2013 c2b Consumer Diagnostic, respondents rated “Is a health insurance company I trust” in the top 3 attributes. Those of you who are marketing for the health care industry must evolve with this changing landscape.

Now more than ever, it is vital for companies to project an aura of confidence and concern. When it comes to handling the private data of customers — and those customers' perception of how that data is handled — no company can afford to be complacent.

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