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.
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.
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