Consumer health advocates and doctors slam HealthEngine for sharing private patient information while Australian Dental Association slams Whitecoat

HealthEngine patient data breachHealthEngine, an online service that allows users to browse its health care provider directory and book appointments had reportedly passed on patient data to third parties such as plaintiff law firms. Several patients have complained about receiving direct marketing material based on their personal data.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported that sharing of private information provided on the website was possible due the HealthEngine’s policy that does not allow users to opt out of data collection practices that pass on patient information to third parties.

Three major health industry organisations, the Consumers Health Forum of Australia and Australian Medical Association have announced their take on the reported sharing of private information of HealthEngine users to third parties for the purpose of marketing while the Australian Dental Association has taken aim at Whitecoat.

Consumers Health Forum of Australia

The Consumer’s Health Forum of Australia have raised some alarming points on the privacy and security of online medical information.

Consumers Health Forum of Australia CEO Leanne Wells, called the incident a “lawyer marketing scheme” and criticised the failure of HealthEngine to declare clearly that patient data would be sent on to claimant law firms for potential injury compensation cases.

She expressed disappointment the on the system saying, “Patients depending on the convenience of booking a doctor’s appointment online are unwittingly being drawn into what appears to be a lawyer marketing scheme, exposing them to unwanted and intrusive approaches.”

Ms Wells also questioned the practice of seeking information about patients’ symptoms and why HealthEngine as a booking service would require such information.

“The practice of the firm in seeking information about patient symptoms is a questionable feature given that it can intrude directly into sensitive patient information not normally discussed until the patient actually sees the doctor.

“These are serious questions for medical practitioners and their patients and indicate there is fine balance that needs to be struck between reaping the benefits of a digital health future with the rights of patients to privacy and protection of their health information. Consumer confidence and trust is paramount,” Ms Wells concluded.

Australian Medical Association

AMA President, Dr Tony Bartone, shares the same level of concern for the privacy of patient’s inforamation entered online. He announced his support for Office of the Australian Information Commissioner’s investigation of the sharing procedures of the said doctor appointment booking service initiated by the Health Minister, Greg Hunt.

Dr Bartone said, “The AMA is concerned about any irregularities or threats related to patient privacy, patient consent, the AMA Code of Ethics, and medical ethics more broadly.

“There is also the serious matter of the potential of third parties to profit from having access to confidential and private patient information.

He also noted that the organisations concern extend beyond HealthEngine to other apps, websites, and services, currently being promoted by commercial entities and health sector bodies while also pledging support and uptake of important electronic health initiatives, such as My Health Record.

Australian Dental Association

The Australian Dental Association also redirected the spotlight on another health service provider directory Whitecoat and warned its users of its activities on the grounds that it has significant private health insurer shareholder ownership.

President of the ADA, Dr Hugo Sachs said, “Whitecoat purports to be an independent means for the public to search for healthcare providers, but the fact that three health funds have significant shared ownership of this service and has representation on its Board raises real questions. The ADA is concerned about conflicts of interest.”

Dr Sachs pointed out these red flags:

  • Search results ranking depend on whether the provider
    • opted in to Whitecoat
    • subscribed to Whitecoat
    • has a number of good reviews
  • Whitecoat’s moderation policy allowing the editing or editing of consumer reviews to favour dentists associated to those three health funds.

He continued, “should Whitecoat choose to exercise the rights it accords itself in its moderation policy, for example, by opting not to publish, or include particular survey responses or written reviews about specific providers in its ‘count’ for star ratings or ranking purposes, it may favour particular providers over others.”

“The reality of the world of apps and online services is that the array of terms and conditions of use and so on are not easy to read. Understandably, the vast majority of users just accept them, but do not know the full implications of how their personal data is used.

“Informed consent is a key principle in healthcare and should extend to online services seeking to link consumers to healthcare providers. Consumers’ health information is particularly sensitive. As a bare minimum, there should be a legislative requirement giving consumers the ability to opt out of sending their health data to third parties for commercial purposes.”

“The public should think twice before using Whitecoat, and ask themselves whether the information on that website is fair dinkum” Dr Sachs concluded.

Photo by Catkin on Pixabay

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