On the heels of fellow Silicon Valley technology companies Apple
Inc and Google Inc, Facebook is plotting its first steps into the
fertile field of healthcare, said three people familiar with the
matter. The people requested anonymity as the plans are still in
The company is exploring creating online "support communities" that
would connect Facebook users suffering from various ailments. A
small team is also considering new "preventative care" applications
that would help people improve their lifestyles.
In recent months, the sources said, the social networking giant has
been holding meetings with medical industry experts and
entrepreneurs, and is setting up a research and development unit to
test new health apps. Facebook is still in the idea-gathering stage,
the people said.
Healthcare has historically been an area of interest for Facebook,
but it has taken a backseat to more pressing products.
Recently, Facebook executives have come to realize that healthcare
might work as a tool to increase engagement with the site.
One catalyst: the unexpected success of Facebook's "organ-donor
status initiative," introduced in 2012. The day that Facebook
altered profile pages to allow members to specify their organ
donor-status, 13,054 people registered to be organ donors online in
the United States, a 21 fold increase over the daily average of 616
registrations, according to a June 2013 study published in the
American Journal of Transplantation.
Separately, Facebook product teams noticed that people with chronic
ailments such as diabetes would search the social networking site
for advice, said one former Facebook insider. In addition, the
proliferation of patient networks such as PatientsLikeMe demonstrate
that people are increasingly comfortable sharing symptoms and
treatment experiences online.
Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg may step up his personal involvement
in health. Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, a pediatric
resident at University of California San Francisco, recently donated
$5 million to the Ravenswood Health Center in East Palo Alto.
Any advertising built around the health initiatives would not be as
targeted as it could be on television or other media. Pharmaceutical
companies, for instance, are prohibited from using Facebook to
promote the sale of prescription drugs, in part because of concerns
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Privacy, an area where the company has faced considerable criticism
over the years, will likely prove a challenge. This week, the
company apologized to users for manipulating news feeds for the
purposes of research.
But Facebook may already have a few ideas to
alleviate privacy concerns around its health initiatives. The
company is considering rolling out its first health application
quietly and under a different name, a source said. Market research
commissioned by Facebook found that many of its users were unaware
that photo-service Instagram is Facebook-owned, the source said.
Facebook's recent softening of its policy requiring users to go by
their real names may also bolster the company's health plans. People
with chronic conditions may prefer to use an alias when sharing
their health experiences.
"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 need anonymity and an assurance that their data and
comments wouldn't be shared with their online contacts, advertisers,
or pharmaceutical companies, Williams said.
It remains unclear whether Facebook will moderate or curate the
content shared in the support communities, or bring in outside
medical experts to provide context.
Facebook declined to comment on its health care plans.
(Editing by Tomasz Janowski)
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