Facebook looking to step into healthcare


Facebook is mulling entrance to the healthcare market, Reuters is reporting. According to their sources, the social networking giant is exploring creating online “support communities” that would connect users suffering from various ailments. Moreover, they may be working on “preventative care” applications that would help people improve their lifestyles. Facebook acquired the Moves app maker Protogeo this year and may finally put that technology and data to good use.

The report goes on to suggest that Zuckerberg & Co. have been holding meetings with medical industry experts and entrepreneurs, and have even set up an R&D unit to test new health apps. The company is said to be in the idea-gathering stage.

Pushing the initiative forward could come from the fact that people with chronic ailments such as diabetes search Facebook for advice. What’s more, the proliferation of patient networks such as PatientsLikeMe demonstrate that people are increasingly comfortable sharing symptoms and treatment experiences online.

There are few questions arising from any Facebook’s involvement in the healthcare space. For one thing, it won’t be able to make money from advertising since pharmaceutical companies are prohibited from using Facebook to promote the sale of prescription drugs, in part because of concerns surrounding disclosures. Perhaps they go straight into telehealth services, which seem as a promising area even Google is experimenting with.

Facebook may also be working on “preventative care” applications that would help people improve their lifestyles.Then there are privacy concerns. Recently Facebook had to apologize to users for manipulating news feeds for the purposes of research. Medical data and Facebook may not go together, but then again – the company can always launch a new brand or even another company to offer health-based services. One market research commissioned by Facebook found that many of its users were unaware that Instagram is Facebook-owned.

“I could see Facebook doing well with applications for lifestyle and wellness, but really sick patients with conditions like cancer aren’t fooling around,” said Frank Williams, chief executive of Evolent Health, a company that provides software and services to doctors and health systems.

People would ultimately need anonymity and an assurance that their data and comments wouldn’t be shared with their online contacts, advertisers, or pharmaceutical companies, Williams said.

So if Facebook wants to become an important player in digital health, it will likely have to offer services under the different brand, all while ensuring users their data won’t be shared with advertisers and other third parties. We’ll see how that goes.