Don't go chasing ambulances
HealthEngine found itself in a pretty pickle this week when in another bout of bad PR for the online appointments booking service, it was revealed by the ABC to have been flogging off patient contact details to personal injury compensation firm Slater and Gordon.
Exactly what the reasoning was behind developing “referral partnership pilots” with law firms or private health insurers we don't know, but by week's end, HealthEngine CEO Marcus Tan was apologising and promising to review the company's business model for advertising and referrals.
Selling online appointment services to doctors and physios is a nice business in itself and HealthEngine has made no secret of its desire to monetise its “marketplace”, as it insists on calling its service, but getting into bed with a bunch of ambulance chasers was never going to end well.
Since the ABC's report exploded on Monday morning, HealthEngine has fought a rear guard action and insisted that it received ”express consent” from patients for passing on their details, but this was pretty much met with a round of derision. While a user of the app might be happy to tick a box to hear about some goods or services, no one in their right mind is going to sign up to being bombarded by telemarketing calls from a load of voracious ghouls promising no win no fee law suits, and that's what some people got when they ticked “personal injury”.
And HealthEngine did itself no favours by claiming it gained express consent through pop-ups and then illustrating this with a pop-up offering a free hearing test. Pulse+IT has twice asked the company this week for a screenshot showing a pop-up asking for consent to have information shared with personal injury lawyers, but this has not been forthcoming.
Another mistake is to send out bland statements on a Friday afternoon to the media – who it seems to blame for the pickle it is in – and litter these statements with nonsense about how your company is “trying to innovate” and “help patients on their health journey” and your “mission of a connected healthcare ecosystem that empowers the world’s best care experiences”.
The ABC is always pretty thorough with its reporting and it gave HealthEngine the opportunity to have a representative interviewed on camera or to answer detailed questions. It refused, and a statement was issued instead, probably written by a PR firm, attesting to how much the company values its customers.
It's no surprise then that at least one error made it into the story, concerning the claim that unless consumers agreed to have their data shared, they could not proceed to use the app. That's incorrect but no one was on hand to correct it. And nor was anyone available to correct claims that “health records” rather than “health data” were being shared, or that HealthEngine's ability to link to the My Health Record meant nothing in this particular instance.
The mention of the MyHR got Health Minister Greg Hunt in a lather and he promptly ordered his minions at the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) and the Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA) to investigate. ADHA isn't equipped for this but we expect the OAIC to eventually issue a stern warning about how consent means consent, and companies sharing data with third parties need to pull their socks up.
It may in fact all blow over and the damage to HealthEngine's reputation may not be fatal, but the whole saga brings home just how delicate the issue of protecting personal information is at the moment. It has certainly put the fear of god into loads of other health IT companies, who are all busy distancing themselves from HealthEngine and issuing their own bland statements about valuing data privacy.
We think HealthEngine has been foolish in the extreme through its flirtation with third parties, particularly lawyers and insurers, but we don't think the cause of digital health in Australia as a whole has been set back. But remember, when you lie down with ambulance chasers you often get up with something worse than fleas, and a doctor's appointment probably won't fix it.
That brings us to our poll for this week: Do you think HealthEngine can recover its reputation?
To vote in our weekly polls, sign up for our weekend edition or leave your comments below.
Our poll last week was about another company with reputational concerns. We asked if you thought Telstra should sell off its health division. Yes, big time, our readers say: 78.5 per cent voted yes, 21.5 per cent no.