The ACCC has instituted federal court proceedings against HealthEngine, accusing the WA-based health service of misleading and deceptive conduct.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has instituted Federal Court proceedings against Western Australia-based HealthEngine, accusing the online health booking service of inappropriately sharing patient information and misrepresenting consumer feedback.
HealthEngine facilitates listings for more than 70,000 health practices and practitioners in Australia and allows patients to publish reviews and ratings to the site.
In its filing, the ACCC alleged that HealthEngine gave the names, date of birth, phone numbers and email addresses of more than 135,000 patients to private health insurance brokers without the patients' knowledge, in turn receiving an undisclosed amount in referral fees.
The ACCC wrote that HealthEngine’s conduct intentionally misled patients to think it would provide health insurance services, rather than provide the information to other insurance brokers.
“By engaging in the referral conduct, HealthEngine deprived patients of the opportunity to control the transfer of their personal information to the insurance brokers,” the filing read.
“Patients were not informed of the arrangements HealthEngine had with the insurance brokers, and therefore unable to make an informed choice regarding the use of their personal information in this way.
“HealthEngine benefited from this conduct as it received fees from the insurance brokers for referring patients to the insurance brokers”
The commission further accused HealthEngine of only publishing customer feedback for practices or practitioners if they were recommended by more than 80 per cent of patients, misrepresenting reviews by either not publishing or editing negative feedback.
This effectively helped generate revenue for HealthEngine, which receives fees from practices for facilitating bookings through its online service.
An investigation by Fairfax in 2018 had found 53 per cent of 50,000 patient reviews had been altered in some way, with HealthEngine co-founder Marcus Tan claiming at the time that the service was not meant to be a traditional rating and review site, but instead bring attention to high-performing practices.
In its filing, however, the ACCC provided several examples where HealthEngine had either declined to publish or misrepresented negative comments about practices’ accessibility, billing practices and wait times.
In doing so, it said that 17,000 customer reviews were disregarded with an additional 3,000 reviews manipulated before being published.
Ultimately, the ACCC alleged that HealthEngine's conduct misled consumers when it came to important health care decisions.
“By engaging in both the review conduct and the ratings conduct, HealthEngine failed to disclose important information about the quality of the services other patients had reported experiencing with health practices listed on the platforms, which meant that consumers may have chosen a health care provider they would otherwise not have chosen,” the filing read.
“In addition, such conduct influenced patients to use the platforms to select a health care provider because it created a false impression about the quality of the health practices that could be accessed through the platforms.
“HealthEngine benefited from this conduct as it received a fee from health practices for each new patient that booked through the platforms.”
Mr Tan said in a statement that HealthEngine had either discontinued or significantly overhauled the services in question over a year ago, and that the changes were made before the business was formally advised of ACCC's investigation.
"HealthEngine recognises 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 us," Mr Tan said.
"HealthEngine is confident that no adverse health outcomes were created and that personal information was not shared with referral partners unless the individual had expressly requested to be contacted.
"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."
Representatives from HealthEngine have been reached for further comment.