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Facebook pauses effort to exchange data with hospitals

Amid concerns about its handling of user data, Facebook quietly put on hold plans to share data with health organizations for medical research.

Amid concerns about its handling of user data, Facebook last month quietly put on hold a project to share data with hospitals, the company confirmed to ZDNet.

As first reported by CNBC, Facebook planned to exchange anonymized data with health organizations, including Stanford Medical School and the American College of Cardiology, for the purpose of medical research.

The project, a Facebook representative confirmed to ZDNet, would have focused on producing general insights that would help medical professionals take social connectedness into account as they develop treatment or intervention programs for their patients.

The project was housed in Building 8, the Facebook research lab known for working on ambitious projects such as the development of a brain-speech interface.

However, the project was paused in March, following the revelation that the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica misused data from millions of Facebook users. Facebook is adjusting its approach to user privacy in the wake of the controversy, but it's unclear when the company will restart the medical research project, the company told ZDNet.

Facebook stressed that the project was paused before data was shared in either direction.

While the data exchanged would have been anonymized, CNBC reported that Facebook proposed using hashing to match individuals from both data sets. Facebook stressed that the project would not attempt to provide health recommendations for specific people.

Medical data must be handled carefully so that organizations remain in compliance with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996). However, the health sector is interested in using patient information in conjunction with data from other sources to get a more holistic picture of patients.

In some respects, health organizations are already doing that. For example, Cerner's HealtheIntent platform collects data from different sources, such as pharmacy benefits managers and insurance claims, to help improve care.

"Seventy to 80 percent of health outcomes are related to behavioral, societal factors," Cerner SVP Ryan Hamilton said at the Amazon Web Services Summit on Wednesday. "We must learn to engage the individual in their daily lives."

Still, this level of data collection and sharing for medical purposes is new ground. A pair of medical researchers recently published a report in Health Affairs recommending the creation of national standards for representing data related to social determinants of health in electronic health records.

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