Update 29 - July 2016

Whitecoat is set to expand its roster of participating funds with an announcement that the search and comparison service that allows patients to leave reviews for healthcare professionals such as dentists and GPs, has signed investment agreements with Bupa and HBF.

The agreement is part of what the Australian Financial Review notes is a strategy to "push more responsibility for improving quality and affordability of healthcare back onto providers."

The inclusion of two new funds into Whitecoat's operations comes as the service, about which the ADA has raised serious concerns, is set to widen its reviews to include surgeons.

The issue
The Whitecoat search and comparison service was launched in 2013 by private health insurer nib with the stated aim of connecting consumers and healthcare providers. While on the surface an innocuous concept, the reality is that there’s a great deal about which to be concerned. So much so that even before the site’s launch, the ADA urged members not to register with the service, and if automatically registered to opt-out. (The latter group was composed of those who had provided services to nib customers in the preceding 18 months or who use HICAPS, which covers about 98% of all dentists.) 

Much of this concern stemmed from the fact that Whitecoat is the brainchild of a private health insurer with a vested interest in promoting the clinics they own or those with whom they have a contractual arrangement. While the site promotes the fact that consumers have access to 200,000 reviews, they are highly subjective and do not convey the full scope of activities by the dentist who treated them, supplying an incomplete overview of the treatment provided, and severely limiting the possibility of divergent outside views appearing on the site. Consumers lalso receive a heavily biased view of any practices in their area not directly associated with nib, fatally limiting the site's usefulness to consumers and by extension dentists seeking new patients. 

Furthermore, consumers who post these reviews often fail to convey the full scope of services offered by a particular practice or the reasoning behind the dentist's decision to provide a certain type of treatment. Prospective patients are simply not given a full picture of the practice in question. Additionally, the criteria set for comparison of providers are ill-defined. All of which means that Whitecoat comes up markedly short as a factual resource upon which to appraise a practice or the dentists working there. 

Consumers will benefit far more from using the ADA's Find a Dentist service and following the suggestions outlined in Choosing a Dentist which provide a number of useful factors to keep in mind when they're trying to find a new dentist. 

A dentist listed on Whitecoat faces the possibility that the heavily-subjective reviews, or indeed any content associated with them on the site, could amount to a testimonial, something which is not permitted under Dental Board of Australia registration requirements. Whitecoat's content additionally includes practice details, comparative cost scores (based on claims data), recommendation scores (ratings provided by nib customers) and feedback from nib consumers who have undergone treatment in the previous 12 months.  

While a definitive ruling hasn’t been provided by the Board to date, dentists run the real risk that they could be in breach of the registration requirements by subscribing to a service carrying these kinds of reviews, and so to avoid any non-compliance issues, they should have nothing to do with Whitecoat. 

Dentists are strongly encouraged to remove themselves from Whitecoat by emailing their provider number and practice location addresses to [email protected] requesting that their details be removed from all HICAPS-associated websites. Practitioners should ask that their details be associated with these sites for claiming purposes only which doesn’t affect the ability to process claims through a HICAPS terminal.