Facebook Planning Health-Focused Services


Facebook, the world’s dominant social media platform, is reportedly planning its entrance into the health care IT space. The move isn’t entirely surprising, health care has been the darling of the larger tech industry as of late, with Google, Samsung, and Apple all announcing ambitious health care plans in the last year.

Facebook has been aggressively exploring ways of diversifying its business lately, with investors acutely aware that social media platforms do seem to have a shelf life. The company acquired virtual reality headset maker Oculus Rift in March 2014 for $2 billion with intentions of expanding into gaming. Around the same time, text-messaging app WhatsApp was acquired for $19 billion, which Facebook announced would be a stand-alone service and independent business unit.

Now, Facebook is reportedly in the early stages of establishing a health care-focused business. Reuters reports that the company will leverage its already dominant social media platform to build disease-focused support communities. This idea is not new. There are already several digital health companies building disease-focused social media platforms with the goal of providing support and educational tools to patients with like diseases. PatientsLikeMe, for example, boasts 250,000 users spread across 2,000 conditions on its platform.

Researchers have already established that there is potential clinical value in using Facebook as an outreach tool. In September 2013, a National Institute of Mental Health funded study explored the possibility of using an HIV-focused Facebook group to encourage self-testing and disseminate public health information. In the study, researchers split 112 high-risk homosexual men into two groups, one focused only on HIV, and the other focused on general health and wellness. Both groups encouraged participants to sign up for free HIV testing and at the end of the study, 44 percent of the participants in the HIV-focused Facebook group had gotten tested, compared to just 20 percent of participants in the control group.

While details are limited, Facebook has reportedly been meeting with medical industry experts and digital health entrepreneurs and is establishing a team to research potential areas beyond support groups that it could enter. Facebook has seen some notable success in early health-related initiatives. In 2012, the company rolled out a Facebook “organ-donor status” in which users could update their status to reflect that they were organ donors. The feature linked to public health organizations to facilitate online organ-donor enrollment and resulted in a 13,000 single-day enrollment totals, blowing the typical 600-day average out of the water.

The question that remains to be seen is whether Facebook users will trust the company to keep its health information private. Facebook has a less-than-stellar reputation for sharing personal information for its own financial gain, and patients may value the privacy that completely disconnected alternatives like PatientsLikeMe would offer.

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