Facebook moves into the digital health market with screening tools, checkup reminders

The company has promised not to use our medical data to further its advertising business.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

We give Facebook information on our daily activities, our likes and dislikes, the places we visit and on the back of an attempt to carve a footing into our finances, the company has also revealed a move into our healthcare. 

On Monday, the social media giant announced the launch of a new Preventive Health tool in the United States, designed to keep tabs on checkup reminders, schedules, screenings, and offer health resources. 

According to Freddy Abnousi, MD, Head of Healthcare Research at Facebook, Preventive Health can be used "to find affordable places to receive care, set reminders to schedule tests, mark when tests are completed, and more."

"Preventive measures have the potential to detect disease early when it's most treatable and, in some cases, prevent it from developing," Abnousi said. "Yet factors such as awareness, access, and cost create barriers to testing for many people."

Initially, the tool will focus on heart disease, cancer, and the flu. Resources for users, embedded within the tool, are provided by the American Cancer Society, the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Users can search for what checkups it is recommended they have -- based on their age and sex -- as well as receive reminders and pointers towards potential, local centers for flu shots. 

If you're willing to let the social network know what tests you've had and which are scheduled, you can use the tool as a form of calendar. Those without health insurance may also be able to use Preventive Health to find Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs). 

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Those interested in donating blood, too, can sign up to be alerted when blood banks are in need of fresh supplies. 

Facebook intends to eventually expand the tool to eventually include other countries. 

The company has a tattered reputation when it comes to user privacy and security, due to a variety of security incidents and scandals, and so Facebook is keen to emphasize that the data, given its extreme sensitivity, will not be misused. 

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"Preventive Health allows you to set reminders for your future checkups and mark them as done, but it doesn't provide us, or the health organizations we're working with, access to your actual test results," Abnousi says. "Personal information about your activity in Preventive Health is not shared with third-parties, such as health organizations or insurance companies, so it can't be used for purposes like insurance eligibility."

In an accompanying blog post, Erin Egan, VP and Chief Privacy Officer of Public Policy at Facebook added that activities within Preventive Health will not be made public or shared with other users. 

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When it comes to Facebook access, Egan says that it will only be viewable by a select group of people "who work on the product or maintain our systems" and will collect general activity data, such as clicks on particular buttons, to "understand how the tool is being used in order to improve it over time."

Facebook users can choose whether or not to make use of the new tool. If Location Services are turned on via your mobile device, the platform may show you FQHCs based on GPS data, or will do so by your registered city. 

"We don't show ads based on the information you provide in Preventive Health," the executive added. "As always, other actions that you take on Facebook could inform the ads you see, for example, liking the Facebook page of a health organization or visiting an external website linked to Preventive Health."

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This is not the only punt into a new arena Facebook has taken recently. The firm's Libra cryptocurrency project has stumbled with the withdrawal of key partners and regulatory concerns across the globe, potentially placing the firm's plan to expand to support and control financial transactions based on the blockchain in jeopardy. 

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