ACCC alleges HealthEngine manipulated reviews, misused patient data

ACCC alleges HealthEngine manipulated reviews, misused patient data

Online health booking platform HealthEngine has responded to allegations levelled by the consumer watchdog that it manipulated reviews and misused patient data.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) commenced proceedings against HealthEngine, making allegations that the company engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct.

Specifically, the ACCC claims that between 31 March 2015 and 1 March 2018 HealthEngine manipulated patient reviews it published, and misrepresented to consumers why HealthEngine did not publish a rating for some health practices.

"We will argue that HealthEngine disregarded around 17,000 reviews, and altered around 3,000 in the relevant time period," says ACCC chair Rod Sims.

"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."

Additionally, the watchdog alleges that from 30 April 2014 to 30 June 2018 HealthEngine gave user information including names, phone numbers, email addresses, and date of birth of over 135,000 patients to private health insurance brokers for a fee without telling customers that it would do so.

"Issues of transparency and adequate disclosure when digital platforms collect and use consumer data is one of the top priorities at the ACCC," Mr Sims said.

"Businesses who are not upfront with how they will use consumer data may risk breaching the Australian Consumer Law and face action from the ACCC."

The platform has said in response that it has since updated and discontinued older versions of the software in question.

"HealthEngine either discontinued or significantly overhauled the services in question over a year ago. These changes were made before HealthEngine was formally advised of any ACCC investigation," says HealthEngine.

"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."

"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."

The ACCC is seeking penalties, declarations, corrective notices and an order for HealthEngine to review its compliance program.

The ACCC is also applying for an order from the Court that would require HealthEngine to contact affected consumers and provide details of how they can regain control of their personal information.

The allegations made by the ACCC come just after the watchdog released its report into digital platforms.

A raft of reforms has been proposed in the 623-page report spanning competition law, consumer protection, media regulation and privacy law.

The watchdog has even recommended a new body be established within the ACCC dedicated exclusively to monitoring and investigating digital platform giants and their potential overreach into the lives of Australians.

The ACCC says many of the adverse effects associated with digital platforms flow from the two major players in the online landscape: Facebook and Google.

These include how the platforms have "distorted" the ability of businesses to compete on their merits in advertising and media, the opaque and uncertain nature of automated and programmatic advertising, the little control users have over their personal data, the dominance the platforms have over news and content creators, and the rise of disinformation and mistrust of news.

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