The lawsuit lodged against HealthEngine highlights the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) increasing scrutiny over the way internet businesses handle people’s personal data.
The regulator has called for an overhaul of privacy law and promised action against internet companies which use people’s private information without their knowledge.
“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,” said ACCC chairman Rod Sims in a statement on Thursday.
In a court filing, the ACCC accused HealthEngine of immediately disregarding 17,000 patient reviews if a person answered “no” to a question about whether they would recommend a service. The company also edited 3,000 reviews to remove negative comments, the filing said.
For health practices that did not have an 80% average approval rating from patients, the benchmark to be tagged with a recommendation star, HealthEngine published the phrase “there is currently insufficient data to calculate a patient satisfaction level”, the ACCC said.
The software maker meanwhile took payment from up to nine health insurance brokers in exchange for users’ names, phone numbers, email addresses, dates of birth, the kinds of health care they received, and whether or not they had private health insurance, the ACCC said.
HealthEngine, based in Western Australia, is the country’s biggest health booking website with 70,000 practices listed, according to the ACCC, and has attracted funding from venture capital fund Sequoia India, an offshoot of telecoms giant Telstra Corp and publisher and TV broadcaster Seven West Media.
HealthEngine founder and CEO Marcus Tan, a general physician, said in a statement that the company had stopped or changed the services referred to in the lawsuit over a year ago.
“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,” the statement said.
The company was “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”.
The statement did not say how the company planned to respond to the lawsuit.