Why Patients Are Suing BetterHelp: The Dark Side of BetterHelp

Ethan
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BETTERHELP

If you spend enough time on the Internet, I’m sure you’ve heard of BetterHelp. They’re an online therapy platform that’s supposed to help people work through the darkest portions of their lives. And for the most part, they do a pretty good job. They have managed to grow a massive network of 23,000 fully certified, experienced therapists who serve over 2.5 million people. 


BETTERHELP


And it seems that almost all of these users are pretty happy given that they have over a 100,000 reviews on the app store with an average rating of 4.8. But it’s not all good news. You see, while BetterHelp’s overall goals and intentions may be pure, their behavior has largely been influenced by the need to maximize profits and achieve global domination as the go-to mental therapy platform. 

For example, you’ve probably heard of doctor-patient privilege. This is one of the most important aspects of therapy. More times than not, people visit therapists to open up about topics that they're ashamed about or embarrassed about. 

Doctor-patient privilege is what encourages these people to share these vulnerable moments and get the help they need. As such, protecting doctor-patient privilege is of utmost importance for most clinics and psychiatrists, but this doesn’t seem to be the case at BetterHelp. 


BetterHelp has repeatedly sold sensitive data to Facebook, Snapchat, Pinteres


BetterHelp has repeatedly sold sensitive data to Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest and other such platforms over the past several years. But the worst part though was how they addressed the situation when the FTC confronted them about this practice earlier this year. 

The normal response would’ve been to either deny that they were selling this data or to issue a public apology for their behavior. BetterHelp had the audacity to claim that yes, they were selling data, but no, it’s not wrong. 

BetterHelp had the audacity to claim that yes, they were selling data


They would write off the situation as quote “industry-standard practice... routinely used by some of the largest health providers, health systems, and healthcare brands." It seems that BeterHelp has made their position clear and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So read till the end as we take a look at the dark side of BetterHelp. 


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SELLING OUT

Usually, when we’re talking about data privacy, Selling Out is more of an ethical question as opposed to a legal one. For example, Google and Meta’s data collection is questionable from an ethical perspective but not from a legal one. 

After all, they lay out exactly what they’re going to collect in their privacy policy and you basically have to sign off on this agreement to even use most of these platforms. With BetterHelp on the other hand, that’s not the case. 

Now, I’m sure that if you really dig into their fine print, somewhere it acknowledges that they may share your data, but throughout the platform, they constantly reassure customers that privacy is a top priority. “Rest assured – any information provided in this questionnaire will stay private between you and your counselor.” Messages with your Therapist are not shared with any Third Party, and your live sessions are not recorded. 

We also do not share when you send a message or have a session with your Therapist or with any Third Party. This last statement must’ve been a new addition because they used to do exactly this. 

in 2020, an investigation revealed that BetterHelp was allegedly sharing metadata of therapist conversations with Facebook.


Back in 2020, an investigation revealed that BetterHelp was allegedly sharing metadata of therapist conversations with Facebook. 

Facebook is being alerted every time a user opens BetterHelp and sends a message. This meant that Facebook was essentially getting a full log of when users were having therapy sessions, where they were attending sessions from, and for how long. When confronted about this, BetterHelp would simply decline to answer. 

You would think that they would stop selling data after this confrontation but it seems that they may have doubled down. According to an FTC report that came out in March of 2023, BetterHelp allegedly used a wide variety of tactics to share the health information of over 7 million consumers with Facebook, Snapchat, and Pinterest. 

They even allegedly shared data collected from health questionnaires which included questions like these. Are you experiencing overwhelming sadness, grief, or depression? Have you ever thought that you would be better off not alive? 

Also, have you taken medication or been in therapy before? Why would BetterHelp share this data you are asking for? Well, so that these users can be retargeted with BetterHelp ads. According to the FTC complaint, “Using this health information for advertising, [BetterHelp] has brought in hundreds of thousands of new users, resulting in millions of dollars in additional revenue.” 

betterhelp revenue


This by the way seems to be working out really well for BetterHelp as they just had their first billion dollar year. The fine for all of this is just a mere $7.8 million which will be used to refund affected users. 

As we previously mentioned, BetterHelp never admitted guilt claiming that this was just standard industry practice and unfortunately, they’re right. Around the same time that BetterHelp was exposed, it emerged that another online therapy platform, Cerebral, had done the same thing. They shared private health information, including metal health assessemnts, of 3.1 million patients with Facebook, Google, and TikTok. 

And according to a report from Mozilla, it’s the same case with most other online therapy platforms as well. As such, the FTC is more concerned about reforming the entire industry as opposed to just fining BetterHelp for as much as possible. And in that vein, they’ve proposed a couple of new guidelines and reforms. 


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MENTAL HEALTH REFORM

MENTAL HEALTH REFORM FOR BETTERHELP


The FTC has proposed a total of 6 new reforms Mental Health Reform that BetterHelp must abide by and other platforms should probably follow as well. 

The first reform is expanding the definition of health information. One of the main reasons that these platforms are able to get away with sharing so much information about users is because a lot of like email addresses, ip addresses, and meta data isn’t technically considered health information. But the FTC argues that context counts. 

Sure, an email address may not usually be considered health information, but when a consumer enters an email address on a mental health platform, it’s a different story. This email address suddenly becomes personally identifiable information that this user may need therapy. So, moving forward, these platforms should treat auxiliary information as health information as well. 

The second reform centers on implementing policies, practices, and procedures to protect health information. This one is pretty straight forward, and the FTC claims that BetterHelp doesn’t have written policies and procedures for protecting the privacy of health information. 



They also fell short on properly training and supervising employees who had access to health information. As such, platforms must implement the required policies and procedures but more importantly, platforms must get affirmative express consent before sharing user data with 3rd parties. 

Speaking of transparency, the FTC has also ruled that these platforms must ditch their deceptive designs. One of the main reasons that people trust these platforms so easily is because the platforms make statements like this. 


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“We never sell or rent any information you share with us.” Reading this, it’s natural to think that your private data is safe. It’s not until you read the fine print that you understand what’s going on. And given that virtually no one reads the fine print, almost no one knows what’s going on until something like this report comes out. 

Considering this, the FTC has required platforms to be more transparent about their data collection and sharing. As for BetterHelp’s credit, it seems like they’ve already implemented this. If you go to BetterHelp’s website now, you’re immediately greeted with this banner at the bottom that admits that they collect and share data with Meta and TikTok including personally identifiable information. 

The Dark Side of BetterHelp


Ideally, they wouldn’t share this data at all, but atleast now, they’re being transparent about it. Moving onto the 4th reform, the FTC is ordering platforms to be more transparent about how encryption doesn’t necessarily protect privacy. 

Here’s the thing: when people here that their personal data is being encrypted, they automatically equate that to their personal data being protected. But this is a rather misleading statement because if you give Facebook encrypted data along with the keys to decrypt it, while the data is still being kept secure, it’s not exactly being kept private. 


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The 5th reform is pretty straight forward. The FTC wants these platforms to play a more active role in monitoring what data their ad partners collect and share. And finally, the latest reform prevents platforms from misleadingly using certain seals in their advertising material. 

For example, BeterHelp allegedly used the term HIPAA throughout their marketing material, something that likely conveyed that some sort of 3rd party or government agency had reviewed and certified the platform when that wasn’t the case. 

Honestly, all of these reforms are great steps forward in making online therapy a truly safe and private space. I think this still leaves one overarching question unanswered. Should we even be promoting online therapy? 

Does betterhelp take insurance


It’s no wonder why online therapy has exploded The Problem With Online Therapy in popularity especially with the pandemic. People like the convenience of being able to talk to a professional from the comfort of their home. 

But the simple reality is that online therapy doesn’t stack up to in-person therapy and I don’t think that’s really a controversial statement. The in-person connection is simply on a different level which generally leads to far better results, but there’s more to consider than just results. 

One of the biggest shortfalls of online therapy platforms like BetterHelp is that they don’t accept health insurance. This means that the entire cost of the platform and therapist is coming out of your pocket. 

With BetterHelp’s credit, they have kept pricing quite affordable with everything considered. Only $60 to $90 per week. But with that being said, if you leverage your health insurance and go to an in-person clinic, you should be able to get a far higher quality of care for the same out-of-pocket costs. 


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The Problem With Online Therapy

Also, speaking about the quality of care, in person clinics will almost always have higher quality care. This isn’t a knock on BetterHelps therapists. I’m sure there’s a good number of highly qualified therapists on BetterHelp, but the key thing to note is that therapists on BetterHelp are psychologists, not psychiatrists. 

In fact, BetterHelp does not even currently support psychiatrists. This might sound like a novel difference but it’s not. Psychiatrists are actual medical professionals who went to medical school and are certified to diagnose illness and prescribe medication. 

Psychologists on the other hand are more or less just professionals that you can talk to. Again, I’m sure there are plenty of highly qualified psychologists but if you need serious help including diagnosis, prescriptions, and professional medical advice, a psychiatrist is who you need to see. 

I bet most BetterHelp users aren’t even aware of this distinction or how BetterHelp doesn’t have psychiatrists that really bring us back to really the core issue at hand which is the commercialization of therapy. While platforms like BetterHelp may have the best of intentions, they’re also trying to maximize profits. 

In an industry like social media, search, or email, it’s whatever. But when it comes to mental health, this becomes a lot more dangerous. In fact, most of BetterHelp’s shady activity can be attributed to their profit motive. 


How does BetterHelp share personal user data with Meta? 

Well, to reach as many people as possible and make as much money as possible. 

Why does BetterHelp have arguably misleading promotional material? 

Well, to reach as many people as possible and make as much money as possible. 

Why do BetterHelp users not know the difference between psychologists and psychiatrists? 

Well, because in BetterHelp’s pursuit of reaching as many users as possible and making as much money as possible, talking about services that they don’t offer isn’t exactly in their best interest. 

So, why is BetterHelp dangerous? 

Well, because they’re commercializing therapy like never before and that naturally comes along with a bunch of side effects. Someone else who has sold their soul is Skillshare.


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