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Kaiser sizing up blogs, ‘social media’

[ editor's note: The statement in this article that a whistleblower "published confidential patient information on her blog" is incorrect. The whistleblower merely called attention to a web site that Kaiser Permanente itself had posted on the internet, which contained the confidential information of approximately 150 Kaiser members. Initially, Kaiser attempted to deflect responsibility by blaming the whistleblower for the breach, and filing a bogus lawsuit against her, but an investigation by the Department of Managed Health Care determined that the web site in question had been online since 1999, several years before the whistleblower was employed by Kaiser. In June of 2005, the whistleblower's name was cleared when Kaiser was reprimanded and fined $200,000 for the privacy breach. Details can be found here and here and here.]

February 16, 2007 from East Bay Business Times:

by Marie-Anne Hogarth

It would have been a debate that many would have paid to see: Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson on the same panel as Justen Deal, the IT employee who was placed on administrative leave after sending a mass e-mail detailing his concerns about the company’s emergency medical records system.

Dmitriy Kruglyak, CEO of Trusted.MD Network, approached Kaiser about attending his Healthcare Blogging Summit on April 30 in Las Vegas, apparently to discuss the challenges of social media in an “open, fair forum.”

The Oakland HMO declined.

“Our goal is to be like a Switzerland,” said Kruglyak, who said he invited Kaiser after critics complained that his first health care bloggers conference only had representatives from the other side. “If we have the appearance of letting guys like Kaiser do whatever they want, we will not have the trust of our members.”

That Kaiser’s CEO didn’t accept the invitation may not be surprising.

Indeed, Deal has also since been replaced on the panel by [a whistleblower], a.k.a. “Diva of Disgruntled,” a former Kaiser employee and blogging Kaiser critic who drew attention to lax security in Kaiser’s systems by publishing confidential patient information on her blog. She was publicly warned by state health authorities, who also fined Kaiser over the incident.

Nonetheless, Kaiser’s dilemma in considering the invitation presents a window into the challenges to companies by bloggers and other social media, as well as the opportunities. Even as corporations hope to reach audiences in a potentially more relevant way, they risk having less control over the message.

“Kaiser members who are looking to the Internet are people who we consider a very important audience,” said Alix Sabin, media relations manager for Kaiser Permanente Northern California. “We think we can communicate with them through the new media. Blogging might be difficult because it is an interactive, opinion-based thing.”

So far, Kaiser has no formal plans to enter the world of blogging, except perhaps to create a health research blog, despite reports that representatives from the company have attended blogging workshops and experimented with blogs.

The company says Kaiser’s primary line of business is health care, not communications. The HMO has taken advantage of some non-interactive modes of social media: podcasting and non-interactive blogging software as a means of distributing information about preventative medicine.

“I have to say that as my first reaction as somebody in media relations, I would be quite concerned about privacy,” said Sabin. “And frankly my job in the media has been more and more focused on patient privacy.”

Nonetheless, the dominant player in the California health care market, with about 3.2 members in Northern California, is a frequent subject of health care bloggers, including some determined critical blogs.

Sites with a Kaiser focus include [a whistleblower's] blog,, as well as, Deal’s is no longer active. The authors of several of these sites have found each other online and met this month at a forum put on by the Labor Video Project in San Francisco.

Lately, Kaiser may have had more reason to pay attention. News releases – one real, relating the surprise departure of former Kaiser Permanente Chief Information Officer Cliff Dodd in November, and one a hoax, relating the false news of CEO Halvorson’s resignation in December – were posted first on [the whistleblower's] blog.

The Halvorson memo was posted in the comments section of [a whistleblower's] blog and [she] treated the news as “unconfirmed.” Updates to the posting throughout the weekend read, “I’ve heard nothing about Halvorson, so please continue to treat this post as rumor, possibly Kaiser PR shenanigans.” Kaiser said that although the Halvorson news was unconfirmed, no blogger called its media hotline to check the item before posting.

“Do we track the blogs?” asked Sabin. “I have suddenly learned to keep an eye on them.”

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Bob Dylan Shills for the Kaiser, and Opposition Mounts

August 29, 2005 from AdPulp:

When the unmistakable opening guitar chords of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” popped up during a commercial break, I perked up my ears. Turns out Kaiser Permanente is using Dylan to promote its new “Thrive” campaign, encouraging people to adopt healthy habits.

But some people don’t like it–as evidenced by this website, which is committed to exposing the ‘truth’ behind the ad campaign and other KP business practices. Among the things you can find on this site is a 50-page PDF brand positioning discussion, in which Kaiser admits it needs to change its image. Right off the bat, KP’s research shows that “75% of people who are offered Kaiser Permanente probably or definitely would not consider us for their healthcare coverage.”

Kaiser’s agency is Campbell-Ewald, by the way. They don’t have an easy task. It’s no secret that Kaiser Permanente has had its share of troubles in recent years, and advertising can only do so much to fix problems that seem to be deeply rooted.

This is a fascinating study of a corporation, its PR and advertising efforts, and its active opposition. I originally just wanted to find the Dylan commercial to link to, but instead I stumbled onto the whole opposition website. Once again, the power of the Internet (and Google) reinforces the need for as much corporate transparency as possible.

I need to dig and find some more info about all this, and I’ll update this post as necessary.

UPDATE: Yikes. Not only is the brand positioning discussion there, so is Campbell-Ewald’s Creative Brief and the campaign’s Logo Usage Guidelines, among other things. Much of this stuff has been on “Kaiser Thrive Exposed” for over a year now. According to the website:

“there was no hacking involved. We found the first of the marketing materials on Google and that led us to the rest. None of the documents were behind the firewall, and all were easily accessible to anyone on the Internet. Makes you wonder if that claptrap HealthConnect system, which contains ALL of your personal and medical info, is secure. And since Kaiser has outsourced much of the work to India (causing many hardworking American IT folks to lose their jobs), WHO KNOWS what could happen? Can you say “identity theft” anyone?”

Rarely have I ever seen a company’s internal marketing documents be actively used against it so openly. Somewhere there’s a leak no overactive bladder treatment could stop.

Read comments on this article here.

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Hard Rain

August 19, 2005 from OC Weekly:

By Rich Kane

If you thought there was a great hue-and-cry a year ago when Bob Dylan licensed his song ?Love Sick? for a Victoria?s Secret commercial?he even appeared in one of the spots?then the hubbub over Dylan?s latest business venture is certain to raise an even bigger stink: ?The Times They Are A-Changin?? used to push the utter fabulousness of Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation?s largest health maintenance organizations.

Naturally, as an HMO with over 8 million members, Kaiser is a lightning rod for controversy. In June, the California Department of Managed Health Care fined Oakland-based Kaiser $200,000 for disclosing the private medical records of approximately 150 patients, which had been posted on a publicly viewable web site. In 1999, Kaiser was successfully sued by several groups over its ?In the Hands of Doctors? advertising campaign, which gave the false impression that Kaiser doctors were in full control of patient health decisions, and not a Kaiser corporate boardroom. In 1997, a California Supreme Court investigation found Kaiser?s complex patient complaint procedure unfair, a ruling that stemmed from the case of Wilfredo Engalla, who claimed that Kaiser doctors misdiagnosed him with colds and allergies for years before finally informing him he had terminal lung cancer (Engalla died the day after the arbitration process was completed). Kaiser also took part in an experimental measles vaccine program from 1989 to 1991, during which over 700 mostly minority Los Angeles babies were treated as de facto guinea pigs, inoculated with medicine that in other countries had caused the deaths of infants after the vaccine suppressed their immune systems.

We doubt that Dylan knows about any of this?he may like his women (or hell, himself) dressing down in lace Victoria?s Secret panties, but he?s rich enough to not have to bother with common everyman annoyances like the lack of affordable health insurance and the appalling state of public health care, despite the heart condition he was hospitalized for in 1997 or his famous 1966 motorcycle crash. And the hypocrisy hits us hard (we would have asked ol? Zimmy, but he never seems to return our phone calls anymore?not that he ever did). But it?s also a tough call as to what?s worse?that duplicity, or the fact that ?The Times They Are A-Changin???pretty much the most defining song of the 1960s?is now a jingle? (A protest of the Dylan ad has been launched on the web?check it out at

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Kaiser ads ‘Thrive’ on good health’ (NOT!)

[ editor: Important correction; the site owner has never been a Kaiser employee, disgruntled or otherwise. She is a former Kaiser member, who completely lost faith in everyone at Kaiser Permanente after six years of near-constant difficulties with Kaiser's meat-market brand of medicine. She became an advocate for Kaiser members after a surgery she needed was denied and two Kaiser physicians, who also happen to be Kaiser board members, responded to her complaint by altering her medical records to justify the denial. Kaiser Permanente is notoriously unresponsive to member complaints and employee grievances, and by nature is a system in which it is impossible for anyone to "Thrive."]

August 19, 2004 from the Oakland Tribune:

By Nicholas Yulico, BUSINESS WRITER

IN A NEW Kaiser Permanente television ad running during the Olympics, a picture of broccoli comes on the screen, with the commentary, “We stand for broccoli, for pilates and dental floss.” The list of approved items goes on for 20 seconds, coupled with a barrage of “healthy” images, such as cigarettes being flushed down the toilet. The commercial ends with the message, “We are Kaiser Permanente and we stand for health. May you live long and thrive.”

The commercial is one of several versions appearing on national television programs as part of Kaiser’s new $40 million “Thrive” ad campaign launched in early August.

The purpose is to spread the word about Kaiser’s benefits to land new members.

“People who are our members have a very positive view of us … We’re trying to extend that idea and that concept to others … (telling them) ‘come back, take a look at us, we have a lot to offer,’” said Matthew Schiffgens, a Kaiser spokesperson.

But one Kaiser watchdog group, Kaiser Thrive Exposed, says the ads are nothing but a public-relations sham that masks the many problems inherent to the country’s largest health maintenance organization.

A disgruntled ex-Kaiser employee who runs the site, explained the matter in an e-mail:

“The goal of Thrive is to improve the perception of Kaiser by nonmembers and decrease a national decline in membership. Kaiser claims to be correcting false negative impressions, but in my personal experience, and that of just about every Kaiser member or employee I know (current and former), Kaiser truly ‘is’ nothing more than a huge bureaucracy that cares more about saving money than providing quality patient care.”

But those criticisms aren’t warranted, said Schiffgens, the Kaiser spokesperson. He points to reports last year by the National Committee on Quality Assurance and the California Health Plan Report Card that ranked the Kaiser Northern California region as one of the top clinical providers around.

The Thrive campaign was created by Campbell-Ewald, renowned for its “Like a Rock” Chevrolet campaign, as well as the recent U.S. Navy recruitment ads.

Liz Mason, a senior vice president at Campbell-Ewald who worked on the campaign, said she is not aware of any other large HMO’s launching major ad campaigns to reposition to their brands — but grants that others may follow Kaiser’s lead.

Kaiser, she said, is launching the campaign to change perceptions among people who might not be familiar with the organization’s benefits or might have negative impressions about the company.

“HMO’s have become symbols of all that is wrong with health care,” and people are not aware of Kaiser’s benefits, she said.

The Thrive campaign is being launched right before the big fall open enrollment season when many businesses offer their employees the option to switch health plans. In the past year, Kaiser’s national membership has remained flat at about 8.2 million, and the company appears to be facing significant hurdles to achieve an increase this year.

According to an internal Kaiser document entitled “Kaiser Permanente Brand Positioning Discussion” unearthed by an ex-Kaiser employee and posted at the Kaiser Thrive Exposed Web site, 75 percent of people who are offered Kaiser Permanente probably or definitely would not consider Kaiser for their health care coverage. Kaiser officials verified
the document’s authenticity.

The same document shows that Kaiser’s best chance for signing on new members is targeting “health seekers,” hence the campaign that focuses on total health and wellness measures.

In the same internal documents, Kaiser mentions that it has discovered what it deems “a striking change in the health paradigm:

“While a discussion on ‘being healthy’ generates energy and optimism, the concept of ‘health care’ generates fear, anger and loss of control.”

To cater to the “health seeker,” Kaiser has been offering a series of wellness classes for some time now, available to its members and the general public ranging from therapeutic tai chi to yoga.

But such programs, along with the ad campaign’s focus on “health” and “wellness,” don’t address the serious issues at stake in the organization, critics say.

“If nonprofit Kaiser has $40 million in patient premium dollars to burn, we suggest the money would be better spent correcting the ‘reality’ of the problems current Kaiser members are experiencing, rather than pushing the mere illusion of quality care and concern on nonmembers,” Wolf wrote in her e-mail.

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Kaiser is ‘Thrive’-ing but so are its online foes

[ editor: One slight correction; there was no hacking involved. We found the first of the marketing materials on Google and that led us to the rest. None of the documents were behind the firewall, and all were easily accessible to anyone on the Internet. Makes you wonder if that claptrap HealthConnect system, which contains ALL of your personal and medical info, is secure. And since Kaiser has outsourced much of the work to India (causing many hardworking American IT folks to lose their jobs), WHO KNOWS what could happen? Can you say "identity theft" anyone?]

August 6, 2004 from San Francisco Business Times:

Kaiser Permanente took the wraps off a new $40 million ad campaign last week, a massive marketing blitz — nicknamed “Thrive” — that will highlight Kaiser’s position on all sorts of health-related issues.

Perhaps it should have included a recommended treatment for hacking. Not the kind associated with a bad chest cold, mind you, the kind associated with unauthorized access to a computer system.

For by the time the ad campaign was ready for rollout, the “Kaiser Permanente Reform Committee” was ready to roll with a little marketing of its own.

Despite the rather official-sounding name, the reform committee has nothing to do with Kaiser — except to run a web site where former employees and patients, all of the disgruntled variety, illuminate in excruciatingly voluminous detail a catalog of alleged misdeeds by the health-care giant.

And an unidentified someone had found his or her way into the bowels of Kaiser’s computer systems and pulled out a lot of ad mock-ups, internal marketing documents and other materials associated with the campaign — which were promptly posted on the site.

Perhaps proving there are people out there with way too much free time on their hands, the Kaiser foes put together ads of their own — parodies that follow the form and style of Kaiser’s upcoming ads, though with decidedly less favorable verbiage.

More potently, they obtained rights for the web address Clicking there leads you not to Kaiser or its ad campaign, but “Kaiser Thrive Exposed,” a sort of smorgasbord of the group’s various rants about the health system.

“For your amusement, our theme song all week has been, ‘We Three Kings Be Stealing the Brand,’” said a spokeswoman, who identified herself as a former Kaiser employee, in an email to the Business Times. “I do think this incident should make people question Kaiser’s overall technical security.”

Kaiser’s reply? No comment.

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