Why the BMJ needs your dataBMJ 1997; 315 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.315.7108.558 (Published 06 September 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:558
Better data on readers and members means better services
The most useful information for doctors is valid, relevant, and easy to access.1 Unfortunately none of the information that is drowning them at the moment scores highly on these criteria.2 One way to increase the relevance of material to readers is to know much more about them and their needs. Medical publishers may then—through electronic means or modern printing methods—be able to send them information that is more relevant. That is one reason why modern organisations need good information on their members, subscribers, or customers, and that is the main reason why the BMJ has been gathering information on doctors. Unfortunately an ill informed piece of journalism in GP magazine, a British tabloid for doctors, has caused misplaced disquiet about the activities of BMJ Data Services. This claimed, wrongly, that the BMA held data on all manner of private information on doctors, from the number of their children to their investments.3
The BMJ has been gathering information on doctors—from them and with their full consent—since 1995. We formed BMJ Data Services because of an opportunity to provide a directory for the coming NHS network and because we could see the electronic revolution arriving. We saw opportunities—for example, developing information for doctors on jobs and helping the BMA gather the information it needs to comply with trade union legislation; modern organisations need much more information on their members than their name and home address. Everybody is anxious to avoid indiscriminate use of personal information, but the information that we collected about doctors was mainly in the public domain; and the setting up of BMJ Data Services went through all the usual BMA approval mechanisms. Letters were sent several times to doctors to gather the information. This has been a most public exercise.
We also set up the business with the intention of making money by renting the lists under strictly controlled circumstances. We have no need to apologise for planning to run a profitable enterprise. (The Lancet's recent disdain of “commercialisation”4 sits oddly in a publication owned by a company, Reed-Elsevier, famous for its ruthless profit making.) Many private companies—including Haymarket, whose newspaper GP “exposed” BMJ Data Services (two years after it began)—live around the edge of medicine and make profits from it. Why shouldn't doctors' organisations—run by doctors for doctors—make that money? We can then use it to underwrite educational, professional, scientific, and charitable purposes rather than pay for a second yacht for the owner of a private company. Any surplus from BMJ Data Services also helps to keep down the price of members' subscriptions. We rent only information already in the public domain. Furthermore, we can, and do, refuse inappropriate mailings and ensure that doctors who say they don't want to receive any mailings—about 30%—do not. Our research shows that doctors have great difficulty stopping mailings, including the free newspapers. “They just keep on coming,” respondents have told us. The law requires us to give doctors an opportunity to opt out, and our high opt out rate is more credible than the low rates claimed by competitors.
Some doctors have argued that we should get out of the business of renting data on doctors. But we should ask who would benefit from this. Our competitors would be delighted if BMJ Data Services were to quit the market. If BMJ Data Services disappears the number of mailings doctors receive will not diminish one jot, but doctors' abilities to control and limit what they receive will diminish. More importantly, BMA members will deny themselves better services if they react against BMJ Data Services. The profession should not allow itself to be led by a “free” newspaper paid for by advertising but rather look after its own interests.