6 July 2018

HealthEngine dumps third-party referrals, user comments

Ethics KnowCents Technology

HealthEngine CEO Dr Marcus Tan says the company is dumping its third-party referrals and advertising business to restore trust after a “misunderstanding” over its use of patients’ information.

In an interview with The Medical Republic, Dr Tan said the advertising and referral sidelines were value-adding services for customers and the decision to cut them entirely was a difficult one.

But he said public trust was the company’s highest priority.

“It’s not worth going down that path if it’s going to create speculation about the use of data,” he said.

The leading online GP booking service is the subject of a federal inquiry following revelations that it shared patients’ data with third parties, including compensation lawyers and health insurance comparison sites.

Dr Tan said HealthEngine’s referral business had constantly revised its charter of healthcare-related organisations including government, not-for-profits and medical research, which it felt would add value for patients.

If patients were not getting value, “obviously we cease the trial”, he said.

“I haven’t necessarily said that we get it right all the time. I guess the issue is, we work on data and complaints to give us a feel as to whether these are valuable services or not.”

The company has already ditched the third-party referral service and stopped publishing user comments on its website. It will stop third-party banner advertising on its website as of July 31.

The sharing of patient data with third parties was exposed last week by an ABC News investigation, sparking a backlash of criticism from patients and doctors.

The revelations came only weeks after Fairfax Media drew attention to the fact that HealthEngine had been altering customer reviews to edit out negative comments.

The publishing of customer reviews had been axed because of the “potential for human error” by moderators, Dr Tan said.

The Perth GP, who co-founded HealthEngine in 2006 and built it into the health sector’s largest start-up, said media reports had misrepresented the way the company had used patients’ information.

“There’s also a lot of misunderstanding about the way we’ve collected consent,” he said, referring to the mechanism for sharing patients’ details with referral partners.

“I think people have talked about it as if we collected it via fine print, and that’s not the case,” Dr Tan said.

“What’s actually happened is that (after) a booking, people actually would get a pop-up that would say to them, we’ve got an offer from a particular partner. If you are interested in receiving that offer, you need to now provide your contact information again in order to receive that information or be contacted by that partner.

“So it is a very explicit opt-in. I think that’s where the confusion has arisen.”

Dr Tan said HealthEngine’s core business was sustainable without any revenue streams from advertising and referrals.

The company dominates the Australian market for online healthcare appointments and reportedly increased its user base of active customers by 87% during 2017.

Dr Tan spoke to The Medical Republic after issuing a statement on Thursday outlining changes to the company’s business model which he said had followed an extensive review of its partnerships, processes and policies.

“In coming weeks the company would give users “greater visibility and control over the way we manage their personal information”, he said in the statement.

“We have listened intently to the public, the media, to our valued customers and stakeholders. Patients and healthcare practices remain at the heart of our business.

“Their trust in HealthEngine is our highest priority. We hope to rebuild this trust to allow us to continue to do more of the good work we have done in improving the healthcare experience of millions of Australians.”

HealthEngine’s practices in sharing patient data are being investigated by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, under orders from federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.