Doctors have responded with shock to news that online GP booking service HealthEngine has been passing on patients’ information to third parties, including law firms seeking clients for personal injury and accident claims.
An ABC News investigation said HealthEngine was handing over details on 200 potential clients per month on average in a six-month period last year to major law firm Slater and Gordon.
Documents obtained from Slater and Gordon showed 40 of the referrals became clients of the firm as a result of the six-month “referral partnership pilot”.
The booking service’s strategy for on-selling patient data appears to have been broader than the links to lawyers.
According to the ABC, a HealthEngine marketing presentation showed it was offering advertisers information on customers, based on their “age, appointment type … postcode, symptom and booking type”.
“Advertisers have the ability to leverage and skew communication towards patients towards patients’ (symptom)-related issues or deliver brand message prior to seeing the GP,” the presentation said.
HealthEngine, a Perth start-up led by GP Dr Marcus Tan as CEO and medical director, processes more than two million appointments per month for general practice, dentistry, physiotherapy and other health providers.
Dr Tan has denied any wrongdoing, however.
“We do have referral arrangements in place with a range of industry partners including government, not for profit, medical research, private health insurance and other health service providers on a strictly opt-in basis.
“Contrary to the ABC report’s suggestion, consent to these referrals is not hidden in our policies but obtained through a simple pop-up form at the time of booking or provided verbally to a HealthEngine consultant. Consent to these referrals is entirely voluntary and opt-in, and we do not provide any personal information for the purposes of a referral without this consent.”
HealthEngine’s web-based booking service asks customers to provide contact details, patient symptoms and the reason for the booking, including accident and workplace injury.
Dr Tan said HealthEngine had no referral arrangements in place with marketing agencies or law firms.
“Under previous arrangements, HealthEngine provided referrals to law firms but only with the express consent of the user. Our referral partnerships remain constantly under review to ensure patient feedback is taken on board and patients are getting access to the services they request.”
HealthEngine was not the only company referring consumers to Slater and Gordon during the law firm’s six-month pilot project, according to the ABC.
The documents obtained by the ABC show Slater and Gordon received the HealthEngine referrals via Bannister Law, which held a contract with HealthEngine.
A customer posted a complaint two years ago, saying within 60 seconds of making a booking on HealthEngine they received an email offering the services of a personal injury lawyer.
Doctors on social media have condemned the use of patient information, saying it was a breach of trust for practitioners and patients and would damage confidence in electronic information systems.
“When retail/business units get access to your health data – is it any wonder they use it for retail/business purposes?” Queensland GP Dr Evan Ackermann said on Twitter.