HealthEngine to build Covid vaccination booking platform despite ACCC rebuke last year

Person receiving vaccination from a doctor

The Federal Government has enlisted healthcare booking service, HealthEngine, to develop a new Covid vaccine booking and clinic location-finding platform.

Underpinning the Government’s Covid-19 Vaccination Information and Booking Service, the new vaccine booking system will be based on the HealthDirect-run Service Finder function, which uses data from the National Health Services Directory (NHSD) – a directory of health services and medical practitioners across Australia.

The new platform is also designed to help clinics “get online quickly” if they currently lack a booking system of their own, HealthEngine noted in a statement.

The booking platform is expected to be launched in the coming weeks, ready for the broadscale rollout of Australia’s multi-phased Covid-19 vaccination program. The first phase of the vaccine rollout has already commenced, with frontline quarantine and border control workers having received their first jabs.

The next phase, set to begin on 22 March, will invite seniors (those aged 70 plus), as well as other healthcare workers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and individuals with special medical conditions to receive their first inoculations.

As of 10 March, just over 105,000 Covid vaccine doses have been administered.

The awarding of the contract to HealthEngine is not without controversy, with Australia’s competition watchdog, the ACCC, last year levying a $2.9 million fine against the company for the unsolicited sharing of patients’ personal data.

Between 30 April 2014 and 30 June 2018, the ACCC alleges the company handed non-clinical personal information (including phone numbers) of more than 135,000 patients to third-party private health insurance companies, netting the company upwards of $1.8 million from private health insurance brokers.

Following notice of ACCC’s action, HealthEngine made a statement of apology to consumers, expressing regret for the lack of clarity around how patients’ personal information would be used by health insurance comparison services. It also noted that the services were discontinued or overhauled.

HealthEngine also admitted to altering reviews to “remove negative aspects” or “embellish them” whilst also removing negative reviews altogether.

Rod Sims, ACCC Chair, at the time, expressed dismay at the company’s doctoring of reviews.

“Patients may have visited medical practices based on manipulated reviews that did not accurately reflect other patients’ experiences,” Sims said.

He added that the regulator was also “very concerned” about the potential for consumer harm resulting from the misuse of consumer data.

As a result of this regulatory breach, HealthEngine was ordered to notify customers and assist them with “regaining control” over their personal information.

While it is less than a year since the watchdog’s censure, the Department of Health appears to have confidence enough in the healthcare network to enlist them to manage the vaccination booking system.

HealthEngine said it will fast-track the modification of their existing appointment booking platform in order to build the new system.

Dr Marcus Tan, HealthEngine chief executive and founder, while pleased to be selected for the job, has conceded the project will face challenges in its rollout.

“Given the very tight timeframes involved and the complexity of such a project, we are under no illusions about the challenge we have signed up to.

“However, the opportunity to support a historic public health effort involving millions of Australians by assisting the Federal government with a very important piece of national digital health infrastructure was one we simply couldn’t pass up,” Dr Tan said.

HealthEngine, which was established more than a decade ago and based primarily around its healthcare services online booking system, is billed as Australia’s largest consumer healthcare network.

Its service has been used by more than nine million Australians to make and manage medical appointments, including with general practitioners and dentists across the country.