Facebook Readies to Take on Healthcare

Posted by: in Social Media Insights & Trends on October 6, 2014

You might have seen an exclusive from Reuters on Friday, suggesting that Facebook is making some significant moves to embrace the massive opportunities of the healthcare market. Following the likes of Apple and Google, it was only a matter of time before Facebook put a more concrete effort behind the data it already captures on user’s health interests. While it’s very preliminary—Facebook itself hasn’t officially confirmed the story—it signals an emerging development of consequence to the entire healthcare industry and the consumers it serves.

According to the report and Reuters’ three anonymous sources, Facebook is plotting its first steps into healthcare. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to those of us in the industry, of course, but this is the first indication of actual plans. It appears they’re exploring online “support communities” that would connect Facebook users with similar health concerns, i.e. various chronic conditions, as well as new “preventative care” applications that would focus on improving lifestyles. Could Facebook be thinking of behavior change models? They have reportedly been tapping medical industry experts and entrepreneurs during this stage and are setting up an R&D unit to test new health apps. Based on some of the potential plans and the resulting speculation, it sounds like they may be thinking mobile-first for this latest endeavor.

What about privacy?

This news is certain to spark a privacy debate, something Facebook is all too familiar with, but which will take on a whole new dimension in the sensitive and regulated environment of consumer health. Many will wonder if Facebook’s systems are set up to handle the rigors of protecting private health information, and whether its leadership is prepared to put the necessary priority on that requirement.

And speaking of PHI, has Facebook tapped any patients for expertise and input during this initial exploration? We certainly hope so, because there’s a lot to be learned from that population too. In the meantime, we’re excited that Facebook is investing its time and money into figuring it out.

This is definitely something to put on your watch list, as clearly more light is yet to be shed here. We encourage you to read the full article and share your initial reactions. We’ll be watching for developments on this, of course, and will share them here as they come.

So, what do you think the implications are for the healthcare industry? For consumers? Are you confident Facebook will get it right from a privacy perspective?

By: Carissa Caramanis O'Brien

Director, Social Media & Engagement, W2O Group. Digital Health steward, Social Health champion, speaker, EMS advocate, and former head of social at a Fortune 100 health brand. @CarissaO on Twitter and most everywhere.

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8 Responses

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  1. Even before this rumor, FB has a HUGE trust problem, even with it’s own users. Will be interesting to see how they frame this as they put things together. Something apparent is, I think, that 2015 will be the tipping point for Silicon Valley companies and health, wellness, and healthcare with Apple and Facebook leading the way….

  2. Thanks, Mike! Trust will surely be a sticking point here and I’ll be curious how–or if–they approach privacy differently with health data in mind. It does appear that 2015 is shaping up to be a big one for the future of health tech. I’m excited to see what comes of it, and how we can put smart innovation to good use for industry and consumers alike.

  3. Ryan Squire said

    What is unfortunate is that companies like Apple and Facebook get the benefit of user generated input that is real. The same input that primary care doctors and hospitals can’t get and information that they can’t use without expressed permission. I hope health care consumers wise up and share truthful information with physicians and organizations that can help them make the most of their information. Until then, I hope Apple, Facebook, and similar do the best they can connecting people with other people who may be able to help them feel less isolated.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Ryan! I’m not sure it’s unfortunate, though I too wish that dialogue was flowing as freely among physicians and their patients. We can hope developments like this may help acclimate consumers to a more open connection, and that it will extend to their relationships with docs online and off. I also hope the benefit of that real input means we can all extract some real value from the product Facebook will undoubtedly create from it. In the meantime, I think we can count on it starting with an extension of the connections for which we turn to networks like Facebook.

  5. Ryan Squire said

    It’s only unfortunate to the extent that physicians would utilize the information to help people be healthier, though that isn’t really happening, yet. How could a physician office or hospital use that information from Facebook? For everyone else it’s fair game but for a physician or hospital it’s probably PHI.

  6. Online support communities and preventive care / lifestyle apps do not represent anything particularly new, but if well executed they can be pretty darn engaging, which would mean that users interacting with them could benefit. However, it would also mean that users would reveal even more personal information to FB, jacking up the value of the profile on each of us amassed by the company. Neither category of activity (as skeletally described in the Reuters story) involves PHI under HIPAA (that designation and those protections only kick in when there is a patient whose records are held by a provider or payor), so the privacy question is the same one faced by FB’s Silicon Valley neighbor, Apple. Both companies appear to be deflecting the issue, at least for the moment. Apple has made an attempt to claim the high moral ground on privacy, offering protections above and beyond those required by law. FB’s checkered past on this front may give consumers pause. Do you want FB to serve an ad to a family member including your purchase history and implied endorsement of a topical cream for a condition not discussed in polite company … but discussed in a FB support community?

    Online support communities already exist as private groups on FB — and on other platforms — but promoting them more broadly may help individuals who have not been reached by existing forums.

    In light of FB’s continual evolution, and the recent “Atlas” announcement (FB ad platform accounting for individuals’ browsing behavior both on and off FB), it is important for folks considering using the new offerings to remember: If it’s free, then YOU are the product.

    It will be more interesting to discuss actual plans, products or services if and when they arrive.

  7. Appreciate the comment, David. It’s a good point you make as far as distinguishing what does and does not fall under HIPAA. And I too am concerned about the open invitation such a forum creates for those consumers who would be less aware of the privacy pitfalls of oversharing. This increases the importance of consumer education about the platforms and tools, something that the private sector should consider alongside its marketing investment. I’ll look forward to discussing with you the merits and opportunities as we learn more about Facebook’s plans.

  8. I wrote a few thoughts about this announcement as well: http://www.emrandehr.com/2014/10/06/facebook-in-healthcare/

    At its core, there is a real trust problem that Facebook has. I think they’ll launch under another brand, but we’ll see. You have to also remember that patients with chronic conditions don’t care about privacy. They just want to get better. So, it’s a huge opportunity for them to benefit and they don’t care at what cost.

    David, I’m going to have to de-friend you on Facebook. I thought you said you wouldn’t talk about that cream.

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