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ACCC: HealthEngine wrongfully manipulated reviews; sold data

14/08/2019By Myles Hume
Australia’s consumer law watchdog is prosecuting online healthcare booking service HealthEngine. The company is accused of misleading and deceptive conduct over an information-sharing scheme with insurance brokers, as well as manipulating unfavorable patient reviews.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has announced it has commenced proceedings in the Federal Court against the online directory and app, which lists more than 70,000 health practices and practitioners, including 3,700 optometrists and 770 ophthalmologists.

In a case that could lead to multi-million dollar penalties for the Perth-based company, the ACCC alleges HealthEngine altered patient reviews and misrepresented to consumers why it did not publish a rating for some health practices.

It is also claimed the company refused to publish negative reviews and changed feedback to remove unflattering aspects. These allegations were evidenced in the ACCC’s court file, which listed multiple samples comparing original reviews against what was ultimately published.

In one such example, a patient’s original review that read “The practice is good just disappointed with health engine. I will call the clinic next time instead of booking online,” was allegedly manipulated to “The practice is good”.

ACCC chair Mr Rod Sims said: “We will argue that HealthEngine disregarded around 17,000 reviews, and altered around 3,000 in the relevant time period [31 March 2015 to 1 March 2018].

“The ACCC considers that the alleged conduct by HealthEngine is particularly egregious because patients would have visited doctors at their time of need based on manipulated reviews that did not accurately reflect the experience of other patients.”

Rod Sims, ACCC chairman
Rod Sims, ACCC chairman
“The alleged conduct by HealthEngine is particularly egregious because patients would have visited doctors at their time of need based on manipulated reviews that did not accurately reflect the experience of other patients”
Rod Sims, ACCC

The ACCC also alleges that from 30 April 2014 to 30 June 2018, HealthEngine gave information such as names, phone numbers, email addresses, and dates of birth of more than 135,000 patients to private health insurance brokers in exchange for payments without adequately disclosing this practise with consumers.

“We also allege that patients were misled into thinking their information would stay with HealthEngine but, instead, their information was sold off to insurance brokers,” Sims said.

Separately, in June last year, the ABC alleged HealthEngine passed on users' personal information to law firms seeking clients for personal injury claims. Details of the deal, said to be contained in secret internal Slater and Gordon documents, revealed HealthEngine was sending the firm a daily list of prospective clients as part of a pilot program.

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In a statement, HealthEngine chief executive and founder Dr Marcus Tan said the company either discontinued or significantly overhauled the services in question more than a year ago.

“These changes were made before HealthEngine was formally advised of any ACCC investigation,” he said.

“[We] recognise that our rapid growth over the years has sometimes outpaced our systems and processes and we sincerely apologise if that has meant we have not always met the high expectations of the community and our customers.

“HealthEngine is confident that no adverse health outcomes were created. HealthEngine does not sell user databases to third parties. Any suggestion we sold off our entire user database is incorrect. HealthEngine is confident that personal information was not shared with referral partners unless the individual had expressly requested to be contacted.”

Tan added: “We are working hard to rebuild the trust we’ve lost with patients and practices. Our mission to enable better healthcare experiences and outcomes remains at the heart of everything we do.”

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