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Concerns raised over consumer ratings

A recent ruling by the Federal Court has put the integrity of review and ratings sites - which have recently been introduced in the aged care sector - into question, after it was found that hotel provider Meriton Property Services Pty Ltd, trading as Meriton Serviced Apartments, manipulated TripAdvisor reviews, in breach of consumer law.

Aged care consumer ratings offer more transparency and choice (Source: Shutterstock)
Aged care consumer ratings offer more transparency and choice (Source: Shutterstock)

Following the ruling by the Federal Court, the provider was asked to pay $3 million in penalties for engaging in ‘misleading or deceptive conduct liable to mislead the public’ in November 2017 by implementing a practice of ‘masking’ email addresses, preventing guests Meriton suspected would give negative reviews, from receiving TripAdvisor’s review prompt email.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has spoken out on the issue, with Commissioner Sarah Court addressing the matter, and the impact it has had.

“Meriton’s management directed staff to engage in ‘masking’ to stop potentially negative reviews from appearing on TripAdvisor [and] this gave the impression Meriton accommodation was of a higher standard than otherwise may have been the case,” Ms Court says.

“People often make purchasing decisions for accommodation based on the rankings and reviews they read on third party sites like TripAdvisor.

“Manipulating these reviews is misleading to potential customers, who deserve the full picture when making a booking decision.

“This case sends a strong message that businesses can expect ACCC enforcement action if they’re caught manipulating feedback on third party review websites.”

Care Opinion, one of the organisations behind the new consumer ratings in the aged care sector - which is available via AgedCareGuide.com.au - has shared its own opinion on the misconduct, and reiterated the safety of the new aged care reviews, with Chief Executive Michael Greco highlighting the importance of transparency within the process.

“In the new world of Consumer Directed Care, it’s important that ‘informed choice’ be guided by something more than a ‘rating’,” he says.

“Ratings might be good for hotels and restaurants, but they are too blunt for aged care which is much more complex.

"With Care Opinion, it is a public site that people can go on at anytime.

“It is independent of any provider organisation, unlike sites like TripAdvisor where this incident has happened.

“We have no email prompts to write on the site, people choose to go to our site, write their story about their experience, and then give us their email address so that they can see how the organisation responds to the posting of their story.

“Care Opinion is totally independent and the most involved any provider can get is by informing someone that Care Opinion exists and encouraging them to share their story on the site.”

Mr Greco says this ‘informed choice’ should include evidence about:

  • The facility’s commitment to listening to consumers

  • When and how they respond

  • Demonstrating changes where necessary so that the consumer and others can see their stories have been taken seriously

He adds that this needs to be done transparently if it is to help with ‘informed choice’.

“The key factor that distinguished Care Opinion from TripAdvisor-type sites is that Care Opinion is focused on continuous quality improvement and helping consumers with more meaningful informed choice,” Mr Greco says.

“What makes Care Opinion different can also be described in terms of how it avoids dangers.”

Mr Greco says other ratings/review sites pose two ‘key dangers’ - danger to the public, and danger to the aged care provider.

“When it comes to dangers to the public, TripAdvisor-style sites are not really focussed on issue resolution, restoring relationships or reducing complaints,” he says.

“The public want a site that is more constructive than just a rating/review site because aged care is more complex, and not simple like reviewing hotels and restaurants.

“To help them with their informed choice, consumers want something more than a score and some reviews, but want to see whether the aged care provider listens to them, responds accordingly, and that they can see whether their story has led to an improvement of the service quality.

“Hence, the benefit of Care Opinion over purely review/rating sites is that the public not only see the ratings, but they can also see the stories in detail, as well as how the service has responded and made changes (or not) to improve the quality of their service.”

When it comes to the dangers to aged care providers, Mr Greco continues.

“TripAdvisor-type sites are not protective of staff anonymity, not protective of vexatious stories, and not protective of ‘unexpected’ online criticism,” he explains.

“Another danger to the provider is that they may appear to be more focused on ‘name and shame’ rather than being constructive and focused on quality improvement - like showing change has occurred.

“In addition, such sites are not set-up to promote learning amongst staff regarding the importance of the care experience.

“This is a key focus of Care Opinion through how the platform operates.”

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