As the HealthEngine saga rolls on, the online GP booking platform has announced it is ditching some of its controversial marketing practices, with the company’s CEO conceding that confusion about the platform’s functions had contributed to a series of data use revelations.

Speaking to HITNA, Dr Marcus Tan said third-party referrals, user reviews and banner advertising have all been removed from the company’s new business model as HealthEngine focuses on being a conduit between patients and practitioners.

Conceding it had been a “tough couple of weeks”, Tan said he had listened to criticism and was making changes in an attempt to rebuild trust.

“Whenever anybody questions your integrity or your ethics, it's always very difficult,” he said.

A GP and co-founder of the company, Tan said HealthEngine began in 2006 as an online health directory containing classifieds and other types of advertising.

“So really, in many ways, we were a media business.”

The business grew rapidly to become Australia’s largest healthcare marketplace, which is backed by SevenWest Media, Google and Telstra and in 2017 was estimated to be valued at up to $100 million.

That growth was powered by the foothold HealthEngine gained in 2012 in the fast-growing online healthcare appointment booking market.

“I think that's part of the difficulty: that there has been some confusion. We do have two parts of our business.”

One part of that business model may naturally have lent itself to pop-up boxes about private health insurance, but hosting a booking platform on GPs’ websites has contributed to the confusion.

“I think that there's sometimes a bit of a misunderstanding as to our positioning in the market. I mean, yes, we are a technology that people are using in their practices, but we are a consumer healthcare site in our own right. I think people forget that,” Tan said.

“I think for us, we need to be very clear that we have our own users and we have people visiting our site that are not necessarily patients of a particular practice because they have multiple practices that they go and see, or they use specialties, and so on.”

The misunderstandings have been monumental.

In the most recent revelations, HealthEngine was this week reported to have contacted patients who had booked dentists via the site in 2017, offering $25 Myer gift certificates for them to send in photos of their appointment invoices. The research into the types of procedures and average value of the first appointment by a new patient was published on the HealthEngine site.

Dr Shawn Rama from Victoria’s The Dental Room told Information Security Media Group that three of his patients had been contacted.

"The clients complained to me and said, 'Is this the right thing to do?' They were a little bit alarmed."

Rama ended his use of HealthEngine after the episode claiming he hadn’t been aware he had consented to his patients’ information being used in such a way.

“I didn't sign up for that information to be shared.”

[Read more: Privacy in digital health: Matters of trust in a scandal-plagued era | New HealthEngine scandal raises scrutiny of digital health consent practices as Health Minister orders urgent review]

It’s the latest in a series of media scandals, which began last month when Fairfax Media revealed that 53 per cent of the "positive" patient reviews of medical practices published on the online healthcare appointment booking platform had been edited, some drastically. The report was based on an analysis of the original and edited versions of 47,898 reviews that were visible via the HTML source code on the HealthEngine site.

An ABC investigation then exposed the company for funnelling the private patient information of hundreds of patients to legal firms searching for personal injury cases, leading the Health Minister Greg Hunt to order an "urgent review".

HealthEngine has also notified the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner over a week ago that the identifying details of 75 of its users had been exposed via its website, with the consumers affected informed by the company in line with the notifiable data breach scheme.

Now, with numerous GP practices abandoning the platform, HealthEngine is introducing changes designed to undo the reputational damage.

“As far as advertising and banner ads and these sorts of things, that was not at all what I was wanting for the site. If we could connect to the patients in other ways, that would've been ideal. But I think that these are a very well-worn, traditional media, spot-and-dot way of reaching users and so I guess to some extent we kind of adopted that as another part of our business. It's not at all core in that sense,” Tan said.

“So to that end I think we were able to say to our stakeholders that we need to make sure that we do not have any compromise to the way that we are dealing with our users and the way that their information is being shared.”

Users will also be given greater control over the way their personal information is managed, and an advisory group will work with health providers, consumer peak bodies and regulators in the development of new products and services.

Without the distraction caused by advertising, the platform with accreditation to connect to the Federal Government’s My Health Record will now attempt to unblur the lines and build a name for managing data well.

“We are a bona fide technology company and we want to make sure that that distraction does not occur in the way that we're perceived. That's why we've decided on balance to actually head down a route where we are managing data well, that we're secure, that we haven't got these other things that are drawing a cloud over what we may or may not be doing with data.”

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TAGS: HealthEngine



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