Atos Healthcare Accuses Online Critics Of Libel

The company responsible for doling out government incapacity benefit is waging war against its online critics

Atos Healthcare, the company employed by the UK Department of Work and Pensions to decide who is entitled to employment support allowance, is moving to shut down websites, forums and online support groups that criticise its assessment process.

Atos’ Healthcare arm uses an automated system – the company’s own Logic Integrated Medical Assessment (LiMA) software – to help doctors and nurses assess claimants. The healthcare professional fills in a digital questionnaire on LiMA on behalf of the patient by choosing keywords and statements from a list and then justifying them.

The software has been widely criticised in blogs, on social networks, and in support forums. A group known as the Black Triangle, which campaigns for disability rights, is now calling for Atos to be removed from the DWP contract.

Atos issues legal threats

In response, Atos has begun issuing legal threats against websites and forums that aggregate patients’ experiences of the assessment process, accusing them of libel. The so-called ‘Atos Register of Shame‘ – which contained a list of healthcare professionals who had allegedly performed sub-standard medical assessments – was forced to close last week.

Atos has also succeeded in closing down the CarerWatch discussion forum – a forum for sick and disabled people and their unpaid family carers – via the site’s server host. According to a post on the CarerWatch blog, the website administrators have not been contacted directly by Atos and are unaware of any issues causing concerns.

“We have many members who are very fragile and the sudden disappearance of a support group has caused a lot of distress and fear,” wrote CarerWatch founding member Frances Kelly in a letter to Atos’s legal department. “Some are ringing us in tears. We cannot get in contact with all of them though as we have lost their contact details through the closure.

“All this distress could have been avoided if you had had the courtesy to contact us first and tell us what had been posted on our site that you considered libellous,” Kelly added. “Obviously if any post was possibly libellous we would have removed it and all this distress could have been avoided.”

Protecting the company’s reputation

When contacted by eWEEK Europe, Atos Healthcare was unapologetic about the inconvenience caused, and defended the campaign to take down websites which damage the company’s reputation.

“Atos Healthcare is committed to delivering high quality services to all users of our services and we take seriously any incidents where these standards are not maintained,” said Atos in a statement emailed to eWEEK Europe.

“While we fully support the right of people to express their opinions, it is our duty to protect the reputation of our employees and company against false and malicious allegations. In such circumstances, we will look to take any necessary steps to ensure that these unsupported claims are addressed swiftly and appropriately.”

Twelve doctors employed byAtos Healthcare are currently under investigation by the General Medical Council over allegations of improper conduct. The doctors face being struck off if they are found not to have put the care of patients first.

The work and pensions select committee chair Anne Begg MP acknowledged last month that Atos Healthcare’s service had “often fallen short of what claimants can rightly expect,” and said that “the department needs to do more to ensure that Atos treats claimants properly and that it produces accurate assessments.”