Consumer watchdog bares its teeth

We must admit that yesterday's announcement by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission that it had launched legal action against health IT firm HealthEngine was a bit of a surprise, coming as it does over a year after the online booking service was thoroughly roasted in the media for its decision to edit or delete patient reviews of practices on its site.

The main surprise was with the consumer watchdog showing a bit of bite when we thought it was due a new set of dentures. However, the ACCC recently wrapped up an inquiry into digital platforms and is keen to see consent and notification requirements under the Privacy Act strengthened, and HealthEngine may just have found itself a case study.

The commission has two problems with HealthEngine: one is its now-defunct practice of selectively editing patient reviews of practices, and the other is its disclosure or lack thereof about supplying patient contact data to third parties, including insurance brokers.

HealthEngine CEO Marcus Tan told us back in May 2015 when he first launched what was called the practice recognition program that publishing reviews would benefit patients by assuring them that the practice they were booking at was well respected. Negative reviews would be fed back to the practice to help it improve, he said.

As we wrote at the time: “HealthEngine intends that the program be “aspirational” in that only practices that achieve over 80 per cent satisfaction – tallied from patients who rated the practice good or not – and have recorded 10 votes within the last year will have their satisfaction ratings published.”

However, the ACCC is alleging that HealthEngine went further than this and put a hover link on the no-rating notation against the practice which, when activated, displayed the phrase "There is currently insufficient data to calculate a patient satisfaction level".

It argues that by publishing the no-rating notation in combination with the hover link phrase, HealthEngine was representing that it had not received sufficient feedback, either positive or negative, to enable it to calculate a practice rating, when in fact HealthEngine had received sufficient feedback to publish a rating but chose not to.

The practice of selectively editing comments to make them more positive than the patient intended was described by ACCC chair Rod Sims as “particularly egregious”, and the commission's statement of claim against HealthEngine helpfully provides some of those egregious examples (PDF).

In addition to the comments conundrum, the ACCC is also alleging that HealthEngine gave contact details for patients to private health insurance brokers without adequately disclosing to consumers that it would do so. It says that while patients were asked whether they wished to receive a call about private health insurance or not, if they said yes, their personal information was given to a broker for a fee.

The main issue the ACCC has with this is that it alleges that HealthEngine used language in this question that indicated that HealthEngine itself would provide the health insurance-related service when it did not. The ACCC says HealthEngine had arrangements with nine different brokers at one time or another and referred over 135,000 patients to them for a fee. The revenue for that is included in the the ACCC's statement of claim but unfortunately has been redacted.

The ACCC is seeking penalties, and 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. We wait with interest to see what happens.

In what was an extremely busy week in health IT, the HealthEngine story wasn't even the most well-read. That honour went to Newcastle GP Craig Barnett's opinion piece on the PIP QI, which is still a very hot topic. Two of our readers provided a quick fact check on it.

There was also the announcement by Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles that the roll-out of the state's Cerner integrated electronic medical record (ieMR) at two of Queensland's busiest hospital services would be delayed by about 18 months to allow the system to be 'optimised', whatever that means.

We also heard from the developers of the two tools being used in the PIP QI – POLAR and Pen – that they will have specific products available for practices involved in the PIP.

Our poll question last week was on that very topic: Are you confident that PIP QI data will be secure if held by the PHNs? One in three said yes (33.5%) while two in three said no (66.5%).

Our poll question this week is: do you support the ACCC's decision to act against HealthEngine?

Sign up to our weekend edition or Pulse+IT Chat to vote, or leave your thoughts below.

Pulse+IT will be at HISA's Health Informatics Conference (HIC) in Melbourne next week. We hope to see you there.

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