The Federal Court has ordered Perth-based HealthEngine, an online appointment booking platform, to pay $2.9 million as fine for posting misleading patient reviews and sharing contact information of patients with private insurance brokers without consent.

HealthEngin  offers a sophisticated appointment booking system for patients along with an online healthcare directory that enlists more than 70,000 health practitioners in Australia. Through this directory, Australians can search and book appointments with health practitioners.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) began investigating HealthEngine in July 2018. It commenced legal proceedings against the online appointment booking platform in August 2019 saying the company was allegedly sharing customer information with insurance brokers.

More on HealthEngine and the allegations

The appointment scheduling service that describes itself Australia’s largest online healthcare marketplace, admitted that it gave non-clinical personal information like names, date of birth, email addresses and phone numbers of about 135,000 patients between 30th April 2014 and 30th June 2018 to 3rd party health insurance brokers without adequate consent or disclosure to consumers.

With such an arrangement with brokers, HealthEngine pocketed more than AU$1.8 million. Apart from the AU$2.9 million penalty, HealthEngine has also been ordered by the court to contact affected consumers and provide them with details with how they could regain control of their personal information.

The ACCC said HealthEngine also admitted that, from 31 March 2015 to 1 March 2018, it did not publish about 17,000 reviews and edited about 3,000 reviews to either remove negative comments or decorate them.

The ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said these penalties and other orders to HealthEngine should serve as a reminder to all businesses that if they aren’t upfront with how they use consumer data, they risk breaching the Australian Consumer Law. The ACCC is extremely concerned about the potential for harm from (mis)use of consumer data, adds Sims.

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Response of HealthEngine to the situation

In response to the entire situation and Federal court’s orders, HealthEngine clarified that personal, not clinical, data was provided by them to private health insurance comparison services when consumers particularly requested a call in relation to a health insurance comparison.

The company said it didn’t make it sufficiently clear on the booking form that a third-party institution which is not HealthEngine would be contacting them and that they would be passing on consumer information for that to happen, this was an error and HealthEngine apologized for it.

Mid-2018, it was also reported that 53% of the 47,900 positive patient reviews on the platform had been edited in some way with many of them flipped in a way to appear as a positive customer feedback. Responding to the same, Dr Marcus Tan, CEO and founder of HealthEngine said in a statement that negative feedback is passed on confidentially and directly to the clinic or practitioner rather than publishing to help them improve in the future.

Acknowledging the same, the company said good intentions do not excuse poor execution and this process has given them a better and greater understanding of their operational shortcomings which they have addressed and their apology still stands.

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Image Courtesy: HealthEngine