How Personal Will Facebook’s Health App Get?

January 23, 2020

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Source: BenefitsPRO, by Jack Craver

Facebook is getting into the health care game.

For now, Facebook Preventative Health is keeping it simple and relatively unthreatening. Users must opt into the feature and in return they get push notifications suggesting they engage in various preventative health measures, such as an annual physical or a flu shot.

The tool takes into account a user’s age and gender in its recommendations. For instance, it might advise a 50-year-old to get screened for colorectal cancer.

In early 2018 Facebook was in talks with hospitals in the hopes of getting access to patient data. The idea was that Facebook could compare a patient’s medical information with his or her activity on Facebook, since a person’s online activity can provide valuable insights that may help medical providers target certain patients for special treatment.

However, these plans were shelved in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that Facebook had shared the personal data of millions of users with a U.K.-based political consulting firm.

Facebook could likely design an algorithm that provides far more personalized health recommendations based on the immense amount of information people share online: their height and weight, their geographic location, their exercise and eating habits, their income and many other things that an algorithm might take into account when predicting health risks.

For instance, it’s not hard to imagine a health tool that concludes that a person is a suicide risk based on their social network behavior.

However, for the moment Facebook, conscious of the increasing fears among the public about its use of personal data, is shying away using anything but the most obvious surface-level information about each user.

On the bright side, Facebook may help nudge people to access preventative health services that they often avoid. Writing in the Atlantic, Sidney Fussell says, “While traditional health-care outreach apparatuses struggle to help vulnerable communities, Facebook has already succeeded in reaching almost everyone: rich and poor, rural and urban, sick and healthy, Rust Belt retirees and Left Coast vegans.”

Fussell predicts that as the tool’s popularity grows, we’ll see a “slow shift back” toward the more ambitious vision of the tool, where Facebook will offer people additional personalization and convenience in exchange for more personal data.


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