Prescription Matchback Process Explained | Pharmaguy's Insights Into Drug Industry News |

Ever since the days of castor oil laxatives and mercury syphilis tablets, pharmacists and patients have had a tacit understanding: whatever you buy, the information is confidential.

No longer. Drugmakers and Internet companies are quietly joining forces to link U.S. pharmacy records with online accounts to target ads to people based on their health conditions and the prescription drugs they buy.

In a little-known process, third-party companies assign patients unique numerical codes based on their prescription-drug records, a practice websites also rely on to track their registered users. The two sets of data can be linked without names ever changing hands, allowing pharmaceutical companies to identify groups that use a specific medicine and send them tailored Web ads.

The practice has become an essential part of the $1 trillion pharmaceutical industry’s digital marketing efforts. The industry says the technique complies with federal medical privacy laws because patients’ names are concealed. Still, critics see it as a breach of confidentiality.

“Marketers are treating our health data as if we were buying a pair of pants or a book,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy group in Washington. “That’s unconscionable. These are highly personal, sensitive decisions that people make.”

Blind Spot

The technique’s growing use is raising alarms that technological advances are undoing protections provided by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal medical privacy law, according to Bloomberg interviews with more than 60 industry executives, regulators and privacy advocates. Websites and data firms exist in a legal blind spot because HIPAA applies to doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, insurance companies and their contractors.

How a Prescription Drug Matchback Process Works