HealthEngine CEO Marcus Tan has issued an unreserved mea culpa following revelations that 53 per cent of the "positive" patient reviews of medical practices published on the online GP booking platform had been edited, some drastically.
Fairfax Media analysed the original and edited versions of 47,898 reviews via the HTML code on the HealthEngine site and found that negative comments by patients had been deleted.
One original review said: “Practise is good ,but doctor was very bad ,no compassion,no people skills. (sic)” But it was changed to: “Practise is good.”
Another submitted: “I will use this practice if I have no other option. Receptionist was lovely but the wait and then the doctor checking text messages and not seeming connected with us was disappointing,” which was altered to say: “Receptionist was lovely.”
Reviews by patients had been published about 1838 medical practices nationwide, with an average of 26 each. HealthEngine informed patients that only positive reviews would go live and contributions could be edited.
In a statement on the HealthEngine homepage, Tan said all customer feedback had been removed from the site following the report, and announced a review into a system that was designed to recognise high-performing practices.
“The HealthEngine Practice Recognition System aims to celebrate the amazing work of GPs and health practices around the country. HealthEngine is not and has never intended to be a traditional ratings and review site,” Tan said.
“As part of this program, patient feedback about their experience is gathered by HealthEngine and positive feedback is published on the profiles of practices rated highly and recommended by their patients. The aim is to bring attention to and celebrate high-performing practices.”
He said confidential negative feedback was passed on unchanged to clinics, while patients were made aware that published reviews were moderated.
“We email all patients about their reviews being published and alert them to having possibly been moderated according to our guidelines. Patients have on occasion requested the non-publishing of moderated feedback and we happily comply. We have not intended to moderate any reviews to mislead readers, and over the last three years, have received very few complaints about the way we have moderated the comments, including from the patients who submitted them,” Tan said.
“User trust is paramount to us at HealthEngine and we are conducting an internal and external review of the HealthEngine Practice Recognition System to ensure clarity, compliance and best practice regarding the way in which we review and publish patient comments.”
HealthEngine, which is backed by Telstra, Google and Seven West Media, attracts 2 million unique visitors each month, with 8000 health practitioners signed up to the system.
[Read more: Hyper-growth at HealthEngine as it looks to expand globally and transform to a one-stop online health shop | From GP booking app to online healthcare behemoth: HealthEngine continues its growth]
While not able to specifically address HealthEngine’s practices, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency said edits to reviews are required in certain circumstances but must not be misleading or deceptive.
"A review used in advertising can be edited to exclude comments about clinical aspects of care so that the review does not breach the rules about not using testimonials in advertising. However, the edits must not make the review misleading or deceptive," an AHPRA spokesperson told Fairfax Media.
"Supporting the public to make informed healthcare choices with the right information at the right time is extremely important as advertising can influence a patient’s decision-making around their healthcare needs."
Meanwhile, a recent US survey of 200 health professionals found that 80 per cent rated their online reputation as very or extremely important and nine out of 10 expressed concern about the risks of negative feedback.
Commissioned by PatientPop, a digital health company that helps practices acquire more patients, get better reviews online, drive repeat visits and track marketing analytics, the survey found respondents were most likely to see their reviews on Google or Healthgrades at 46.5 per cent each, Yelp at 45.8 per cent and Facebook at 37.3 per cent.
Forty per cent of providers feared reviews would give people the wrong impression of their practice, 30 per cent feared they would be unfair or inaccurate, 14 per cent were feared bad reviews would deter new patients.
Sixty-two per cent of the sample said they had received at least one negative review, but 73 per cent of providers who tracked their reviews said they were all or mostly positive.
But only 46 per cent of respondents had a plan to invest in improving their online reputation management, with most planning to assign current staff to spend more time on it or by acquiring new technology or services.
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