LAS VEGAS—Facebook on Monday took a step into preventive medicine, rolling out a new tool to encourage users to get flu shots as well as appropriate cancer screenings and heart health tests. But the success of the new product may depend on whether the social media giant can regain consumers’ trust.
The company is asking people to use its site to make and record decisions about their health care—such as logging completion of a cholesterol test—at a time when it is trying to contain the fallout from months of controversy around privacy, sharing of user data, and misinformation.
Facebook said it’s put up strict safeguards to protect the privacy of people who use the new tool. The company vowed not to share the data generated through the tool with third parties. It won’t let other users on Facebook see when people use the feature. Nor will it allow advertisers to target ads to users based on the information they share using the tool—though they might see targeted ads if they click through to another website or navigate away to like the page of a health care organization. Within Facebook, the data from the tool will be accessible only to a subset of employees focused on keeping the feature functional.
“As a clinician, I’m keenly aware that health care is different, and health information is different, and that we have to treat it differently, and we have,” Dr. Freddy Abnousi, a cardiologist who serves as Facebook’s head of health care research, told reporters at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas on Sunday night.
“The goal here is simply to save lives,” Abnousi said.
Abnousi said that Facebook wants to amplify the messages of leading health organizations about appropriate preventive care, and it built the tool with the help of several high-profile partners: the American Cancer Society, the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their role? To ensure that the essence and accuracy of clinical guidelines didn’t get lost as they were translated into digestible recommendations on Facebook’s tool.
Users can access the tool by typing “preventive health” into their search bar, or Facebook might surface it for them in their timeline. They’ll be prompted to enter their gender and age, and then get served up a list of recommendations for preventive care such as a blood pressure test, and, for women, a mammogram, a Pap test to screen for cervical cancer, and a test for the types of human papillomavirus most likely to cause cancer.
For each recommendation, the tool lists things to know (for example, “Females age 45 to 55 should get a mammogram every year”) and allows users to record when they get a checkup or to set a reminder to take action in the future. The tool also lets users who may not have a primary care provider pull up a map to find a nearby government-funded community clinic or a pharmacy where they can get a flu shot.
The company plans in the next couple weeks to release the English-language tool in Spanish, too, Abnousi said. While it’s only available in the U.S. for now, Facebook may later expand it to other countries and other forms of preventive care.
The preventive health tool is the latest in a series of efforts by Facebook to push into health and medicine—even as its handling of health data has come under scrutiny.
Nearly a year ago, a consumer complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission accused Facebook of not properly protecting information about users who joined support groups to discuss their own medical conditions with the expectation of privacy. That sparked a letter from federal lawmakers and was followed by the rollout of a new feature from Facebook allowing users to ask health questions anonymously. (Facebook has said the site isn’t fundamentally about anonymity and makes clear to users what information is visible to other members of a given group.)
Facebook has also been on the receiving end of sensitive health information. A study published this spring revealed that several dozen top-rated mental health apps sent data to Facebook, as well as Google, for analytics or advertising purposes. And in February, the Wall Street Journal reported that popular smartphone apps in which users record sensitive health data, such as when they’re ovulating, had been sharing that information with Facebook—even in cases in which the user had no connection to the social networking giant. (Facebook said that such data sharing violated its business terms.)
Scrutiny has also prompted Facebook to scale back its ambitions in health. In early 2018, Abnousi led an exploratory project that involved asking several hospitals to share anonymized data about their patients for research purposes. But Facebook put that effort on hiatus around the spring of 2018, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal—in which a political firm working for the Trump campaign gained access to private information on millions of Facebook users—sparked intense pushback about how the company handles sensitive data. That effort remains paused.