Ping! It’s time to get a mammogram. Now, if only your boss would give you time off.
Earlier this week, Facebook launched a new healthcare feature called Preventive Health for users in the U.S. When you search for Preventive Health in the Facebook mobile app, it will surface recommended screenings based on your age and sex, as well as other preventative health measures like flu shots.
The tool gives recommendations for nearby Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), allows you to set appointment reminders, and mark when tests and appointments are completed.
Facebook also took great pains to articulate that your activity in the Preventive Health tool won’t be shared with advertisers. But is that enough for people to trust Facebook with their sensitive personal health data? And while its nearly 2 billion users are enticing to healthcare professionals, there are questions about whether Facebook can actually make a difference.
For tech companies, work in healthcare has the potential to breed public goodwill, as well as new business opportunities. But so far, the tech industry’s approach to healthcare has been to suggest splashy ideas that won’t necessarily do much good.
Both Google and Amazon are pouring money into health initiatives with nebulous goals. Apple branded the Apple Watch as the “ultimate guardian for your health,” but the device hasn’t won over doctors, and its self-lauded heart-monitoring features have yet to prove that they’re making a difference.
Facebook’s Preventive Health tool does have a couple things going for it.
First, the actual recommendations for tests and screenings come from reputable organizations including the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society. The preventive measures they recommend are backed up by studies that prove their effectiveness. The recommendations now focus on heart health, cancer screening, and seasonal illness (like the flu), but Facebook says it plans to add more in time.
Next, experts are excited about the ability to reach people through Facebook. Estimates put Facebook’s current U.S. user base at around 200 million people. Dr. Vish Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, says that casting a wide net is a crucial component of public health campaigns. However, he still has some reservations.
“Given that we have to reach people through a variety of mechanisms, and certainly on social media, given [Facebook’s] very wide usage, I think it’s a good idea,” Viswanath said. “Having said that, the devil is in the details.”
Research has shown that there are a few principles necessary for a successful public health campaign, according to Viswanath. First, the messaging and mechanisms of campaigns have to specifically be adjusted to best suit the populations they are trying to reach
“The one size fits all approach is unlikely to be successful,” Viswanath said.
Facebook tailors recommendations based on demographics, but not the way it delivers those messages. For example, wouldn’t it be more effective to reach younger people on Instagram? This is consistent with another principle: that campaigns should be multi-dimensional, utilizing multiple mediums to get the message out. One notification on one platform may not cut through the noise.
Another challenge is the complementary action needed on behalf of government agencies and health providers. Viswanath said research has found that if the public is going to make an effort to address a health concern, other stakeholders (like the government, health facilities, or employers) need to make a similar effort to provide it. A huge problem with Facebook’s campaign is that it is one sided, and puts all of the burden on the user.
“We cannot just pat ourselves on the back, saying we have provided you the information, now go and do it.”
“We cannot just pat ourselves on the back, saying we have provided you the information, now go and do it,” Viswanath said.
Facebook does provide some resources: a list of federally accredited and affordable health clinics nearby. However, Viswanath said finding places to get care is not as big of a hurdle for people as issues like how to negotiate time off work, and how to actually get to clinics.
“If I’m a single parent, working one job or two jobs or with limited transportation, I’m faced with multiple demands in my time, you can provide me all the information you want, but at the end of the day, that still doesn’t solve my problem,” Viswanath said.
Given these limitations, some think that the effort may sound nice, but are skeptical that it will have much of an effect.
“There’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing,” said Vince Kuraitis, an independent health and technology consultant with 30 years of industry experience. “But the functions of the app as described are pretty minimal, and I don’t see them moving the needle on the public health side.”
Another reason health experts are keeping their expectations at a minimum is privacy concerns. In tandem with the announcement of the tool, Facebook published a blog post detailing the measures it was taking to secure user privacy. It says that user activity won’t be sent to advertisers or third parties, and won’t be available widely across the company to employees.
“Information you provide is securely stored and access is restricted to a group of people at Facebook who work on the product or maintain our systems,” the post reads.
However, these promises can be less than reassuring for people who know Facebook’s track record on data collection and privacy breaches.
“They’ve got a deep hole to dig out of in terms of winning trust,” Kuraitis said. “That becomes particularly difficult with healthcare, because it’s such a sensitive area.”
Data backs up that sentiment, too. Recently, the tech-healthcare analysis firm, Rock Health, along with Stanford Medicine, conducted a survey asking respondents with which companies they would feel comfortable sharing their health data. Only 10 percent of respondents said they felt comfortable turning to tech companies for healthcare, and of that 10 percent, only 36 percent said they would feel comfortable sharing health information with Facebook specifically.
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The proof of Facebook’s ability to protect user privacy, especially around health data, will be something experts plan to watch closely.
“I don’t think Facebook has acquitted itself very well, in terms of protecting privacy, given their history, and their reluctance to admit their problems,” Viswanath said. “Over time, to me, it is an empirical question, to see how this will work out and see if it really makes the big difference.”