THE BLOG

Is WellPoint SUGGing?

04/20/2009 03:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Politico's Ben Smith passes along a report from a reader who received an "automated poll" from her health insurer, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The recorded call began with the message that "President Obama is planning to enact health care reform," and continued with these questions:

1) "Are you aware of the debates regarding health care reform?"

2) "How interested" are you in health care reform?

3) "How willing are you to get involved so we can improve our nation's health care system?"

4) "How willing are you to attend a town-hall meeting" on this subject?

5) "As Well-Point Health Care works to solve our nation's health care problems," would you like future updates?

Smith also reports that the call closed "by asking for the respondent's sex and whether they were the subscriber or spouse." He adds: "WellPoint is Anthem's parent company and is the nation's largest health insurer," with "more than 34 million subscribers."   

For what it's worth, this call sounds less like a sample survey and more like the sort of massive data "harvesting" we have seen often over the last two or three years. The "would you like future updates" question suggests that the call is not about asking questions of a representative sample of a few hundred for further study, but about cheaply identifying massive numbers of customers for further follow-up via direct marketing. The last two questions (gender and "are you the subscriber?") would allow the callers to match the respondent with name on the list with reasonable accuracy.

We have seen many recent examples that communicated a message while also gathering data from full populations rather than small samples. The automated, interactive-voice-response technology makes such an effort cheap and easy.

Unfortunately, these efforts put a burden on legitimate survey research. Most pollsters agree that the long term, 20-30 year decline in response rates has resulted mostly from the explosion of telemarketing calls. Many potential respondents assume that any call from a stranger is a sales call, and the sheer volume of telemarketing makes has made us all leery of any calls that begin with the tell tale sounds of an operator in a call center.

We can debate whether this sort of call qualifies as what the Market Research Association (MRA) describes as "SUGGing" - selling under the guise of research. (Update: the Marketing Research Association does not believe it does -- see "Update 2" below).  At least the Well-Point calls ask permission to provide "future updates." Whether it counts as "selling" or not, we have to assume that massive data harvesting conducted under the guise of a survey makes it harder for legitimate surveys to win cooperation from potential respondents.

Update:  Smith has updated his post to point to point to more details obtained by Jacob Goldstein of the Wall Street Journal's Health Blog:

The company placed three million automated calls. Of those, 142,000
connected and 66,000 people told the computer on the other end of the
line that they'd be interested in learning more, WellPoint spokeswoman
Cheryl Leamon told the Health Blog.

Insurers sometimes enlist interested beneficiaries to help sway
public opinion. "If there are members who are interested in supporting
our pos and being parts in the health care policy debate we want to
make sure that they are able to participate," Leamon said.

The Health Blog item includes a link to an online version of the "survey."  Both the URL (wellpointsurvey.com) and the text characterize the questions as a "survey."  On the other hand, both also identify WellPoint as the sponsor and the introduction offers no promise of confidentiality and says explicitly that "we at WellCare...need your help." 

So this is definitely a massive data harvesting project.  Is it ethical? 

Update 2: Howard Feinberg, director of government affairs for the Marketing Research Association (MRA), emails to say, no, this particular "survey" does not fall under their definition of SUGGing.  More details here