An investigation into the review practises of Australian doctor booking service startup HealthEngine has accused the company of “sanitising” and modifying customer reviews en-masse, raising questions around issues of potentially misleading and deceptive conduct.
As reported by Fairfax last week, the company is alleged to have modified over 50% of ‘positive’ reviews on the HealthEngine website to be more favourable towards more than 1,800 GPs around Australia.
HealthEngine was founded in 2006 by Adam Yap and Dr Marcus Tan and has raised over $50 million in venture capital since launch, including a $26.7 million Series C funding round in April last year.
Fairfax’s uncovering of the reviews, done via an alteration of the HealthEngine’s HTML code, revealed significant differences between the originally written reviews and the ones published on the platform’s website.
One example involves a review initially written as: “The practice is great, I love it, however the doctor I saw was uninterested, didn’t care about my history, asked very few clinical questions regarding my condition and gave me no follow up advice on what to do if pain worsened”. It was allegedly published on the HealthEngine website as “the practice is great, I love it”.
Of the reviews posted, Fairfax found approximately 25,380 had been changed.
In a letter on the company’s website, HealthEngine chief executive Dr Marcus Tan apologised for the review sanitising but defended the system as beneficial for both patients and doctors.
“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.”
The company is currently undergoing a review of the system, but Tan told Fairfax he does not believe the system to be misleading. SmartCompany has contacted the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) but did not receive a response prior to publication. However, the watchdog told Fairfax it was unable to comment on specific businesses.
SmartCompany also contacted HealthEngine, but did not receive a response prior to publication.
ACCC can take action on potentially misleading or deceptive conduct
The ACCC’s guidelines for businesses when it comes to online reviews warn businesses to not post misleading reviews, outlining that “the omission or editing of reviews may be misleading”.
The ACCC has taken action against businesses in the past over misleading and deceptive conduct in relation to reviews, including property company Aveling, which the watchdog alleged was misleading customers by creating seemingly third-party review sites that were “deliberately managed by Aveling Homes to ensure a favourable overall impression”.
Speaking to SmartCompany, Richard Prangell, director at Viridian Lawyers, said in general terms, when it comes to online reviews, businesses have to be aware of false and misleading claims, and misleading and deceptive conduct.
Prangell warns that businesses can’t “put words in the mouths” of customers, and if the review you are posting doesn’t accurately reflect the view of the customer, you could be misleading and deceiving the public.
“Either post the review as is or post the review modified with the approval of the customer. Even just excerpting parts of a review is not accurately reflecting the intent of the viewer,” he says.
The ACCC does not view sanitation of reviews favourably, says Prangell, and it can become a particular problem when done at scale. The fines for misleading and deceptive conduct infringements cap out at $12,600, but Prangell warns those fines are issued per offence.
Overall, he acknowledges that online reviews can be a significant pain point for business owners, especially when dealing with larger online databases that lack easy mechanisms for reporting or responding to reviews.
“Frankly, it’s a huge pain point for business owners and one that’s very difficult to get satisfaction for,” he says.
“My advice is to respond wherever possible, and unless it’s causing significant damage to your business and you can pursue a claim through court, just move on and keep providing a good service.”