Will Pharma Have an Ashley Madison Moment?

Jeff Greene, digital strategy lead at New Solutions Factory
Jeff Greene, digital strategy lead at New Solutions Factory

 

As the news waves continue to ripple out from the Ashley Madison hack, they are eventually going to reach the consciousness (and perhaps the conscience) of the nation's physicians.

And that moment could seriously dampen the growth of digital across the pharma industry.

Ashley Madison is a dating site marketed to people who are either married or in committed relationships. Hackers recently released information about the site's registered users, which may number more than 30 million people worldwide, according to the Associated Press.

Let's assume Ashley Madison's exposed user list of would-be cheaters includes a lot of physicians. Makes sense, right? The site is largely male and skews toward higher incomes. (Men still account for about two-thirds of all US physicians.) If roughly 16 million accounts were exposed—it was actually twice that, but I'm discounting the millions of profiles that were either fake or outside the US—and 1% belonged to physicians, that would put 160,000 doctors at risk.

That's more than 15% of all practicing physicians! Crazy? Maybe not, since other data show the divorce rate is higher than 33% for couples that got married between the 1960s and 1990s. Cheating, or the will to cheat, was surely to blame for some of those splits.

Even if you went with half my estimate, 7.5% of US physicians exposed in the Ashley Madison hack would spell trouble for pharma's digital initiatives. For one thing, hacked doctors will think twice before registering again for anything online, especially pharma-sponsored programs. It's not hard to imagine a hacktivist group deciding to wage “war” against Pfizer or Merck, exposing the names of their app users or CRM program registrants.

Can you picture the click-bait headlines if such a breach ever occurred?

“Is your doctor in bed with Big Pharma? Find out!”

“She thought her oncologist was honest. Then this happened.”

Never mind that most of the digital pharma programs I know about are meant to educate, not corrupt. This nuance might be lost, however, in the corresponding media frenzy.

The Ashley Madison ripples will surely touch patients as well. Already, data hacks at major retailers, such as eBay, Target and Home Depot, have put consumers on edge, and the FDA has issued warnings about the potential to hack medical devices.

While these kinds of hacks are nebulous and distant at best, losing control of personal health information could be a serious financial bummer. How many members of Ashley Madison have heart conditions? Depression? Prostate cancer? HIV? Assume some of the 16 million users will swear off registering online for anything that could expose their health status to employers, life insurers or litigious ex-spouses. Expect their friends, siblings and coworkers to consider doing the same.

Ashley Madison's lesson must be heeded. For all the good pharma has done for the world, it has also created its share of ethical quagmires. Given the choice between two perceived evils, I don't know that the public would rank "cheating spouses" as being any worse than "greedy pharma executives." The findings of a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll assessing the public's views of pharma companies suggests they'd pick cheaters in a heartbeat. 

This is a learning opportunity for pharma, and the lessons could be hard to swallow:

Treat threats seriously. Though the hacker group claiming responsibility warned the website beforehand, Ashley Madison failed to respond. The pharma IT groups I've met over the years are terminally overextended, putting out fires rather than planning for risks. I don't know that most pharma companies threatened with data exposure would have the bandwidth to act. That needs to change.

Treat data carefully. Ashley Madison may have been spared a worse fate because it used a high level of encryption to protect credit card information. In contrast, I worked with an account lead at a well-known ad agency who once e-mailed me an Excel spreadsheet with the names and addresses of physicians who had registered on a client's website. It's no surprise that a lot of my team's consulting work the past year has focused on creating roadmaps for pharma companies to collect, manage and protect their CRM data.

Improve perception. If anything, Ashley Madison flaunted its questionable ethics. (Tagline: "Life is short. Have an affair.") Then again, it didn't have much else to go on. Drug manufacturers have had more impact on extending life and reducing suffering than any other, yet their industry remains one of the least trusted in America. It has had myriad opportunities to respond, from challenging the anti-vaccine movement to improving patient engagement, but until structural changes improve its perception, the pharma industry will be vulnerable to the next big hack.

Jeff Greene is a partner and the digital strategy lead at New Solutions Factory.