Facebook wants to offer you advice on preventive health care

Bloomberg | Updated on October 29, 2019

Facebook Inc. is cracking the door open into another part of its users’ personal lives: their health.

The social media giant on Monday announced a feature that will use a person’s age and gender to provide preventive health-care information, including suggested check-ups. Users can then find a nearby doctor or clinic, set a reminder for their appointment and mark it “done” once they’ve completed a visit — all on Facebook.

The company says the feature is intended to encourage more people to take steps to prevent health issues. “I take care of patients every day who come in with acute heart attacks,” said Freddy Abnousi, a practising doctor who is head of health-care research at Facebook. “Every time we bring someone back from the abyss, because that’s basically how they show up, we always wonder how we could have prevented some of this.” This new feature, Abnousi hopes, will get people to see their doctor with more regularity.

The initiative also may raise concerns with industry critics who believe Facebook already has too much information on more than 2 billion total users. Facebook and Abnousi explored data partnerships with hospitals and other medical groups in early 2018, according to CNBC, but those didn’t materialise.

While Facebook won’t ask for any information beyond age and gender, those using the tool will provide data such as when they might need a particular check-up. If people use Facebook’s map to find a doctor, the company can also see aggregate information about which doctors its users are clicking on. Abnousi said Facebook will not use any information collected through the feature to target people with ads. He also said the data collected will be stored in a way that requires special access permissions from those inside the company.

Still, Abnousi understands that some people will bristle at the idea of using Facebook for anything health-related, even if it’s just a reminder for their next check-up.

“There are people who are not going to be terribly happy about some of this,” he said, before suggesting Facebook users could simply read the recommendations and avoid some of the features, like setting appointment reminders. “Engage with the information because it could improve your health outcome in the long term,” he said.

Facebook has expanded its service to include various features outside of its main business model in recent years. It launched a blood-donations tool this summer, reminded people to register to vote before the 2016 elections and offered a donate button for charities, fund raisers and non-profits.

The mapping tool included in the new feature will show health centres where people can get care even if they don’t have insurance. “Most of the preventive measures recommended by the health organisations we’re working with, such as blood pressure tests, are free of charge with insurance coverage, but we know many people do not have insurance,” the company wrote in a blog post. “To help people get affordable care, Preventive Health offers a way to find federally qualified health centres near them.”

The social media company has been under scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers since it acknowledged early in 2018 that UK political research firm Cambridge Analytica gained unauthorized access to private information of as many as 87 million users. The company agreed in July to pay $5 billion to resolve a US Federal Trade Commission investigation of privacy violations stemming from the scandal. Facebook, however, remains a target of antitrust investigations -- and stepping into the world of health care, even gently, is bound to catch people’s attention.

The feature will be rolled out beginning Monday in the US, and users may see an alert about it in their News Feed. The company said educational materials will be provided by a handful of health organizations partnering with Facebook, including the American College of Cardiology, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Published on October 29, 2019

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