How Facebook is quietly pushing into healthcare

p 1 FB wearables

Each massive tech firm nowadays appears to have a well being tracker, and now that features Facebook.

Final week, The Information reported that the social networking firm is engaged on a wearable well being tracker it’s planning to launch subsequent yr. At first look, it’s unclear why Facebook would spend money on a chunk of {hardware} that appears unrelated to its core enterprise. However the firm has really been creeping into the well being class for years by a collection of tasks that haven’t garnered a ton of consideration.

There are just a few the explanation why Facebook may wish to get into the wearable enterprise. Well being apart, Facebook could also be eager to place its apps even nearer to customers, and The Data article signifies the watch could have an emphasis on messaging. A tracker may assist enhance engagement amongst Facebook’s billions of customers by sending them notifications for messages or different well being reminders. It may additionally jump-start Facebook’s purported ambitions to affect public well being.


However Facebook’s data-mining practices make a foray into healthcare controversial. Not solely does the corporate accumulate an unbelievable quantity of knowledge on its customers, nevertheless it has additionally mishandled and failed to guard that information. There is cause to consider that individuals wouldn’t need Facebook to have one more approach to accumulate information about them. Nonetheless, it is additionally true that an unbelievable variety of individuals use Facebook, giving the platform a chance to advertise more healthy way of life decisions.

The strongest sign of Facebook’s curiosity in healthcare was hiring Freddy Abnousi, a Stanford College professor and heart specialist with a background in public well being, again in 2016 as the corporate’s head of well being expertise. In a 2019 interview with Senator Invoice Frist on his podcast Second Opinion, Abnousi defined why he left academia for Facebook. He noticed within the social community a chance to assist form the social elements of an individual’s life that may result in higher well being outcomes.

He gave for instance a 2017 study that offered important proof that being socially built-in results in higher well being behaviors and a decrease danger of creating nonfatal coronary heart assault. It was a 22-year research that in contrast an individual’s well being profile with social elements, akin to whether or not they had been married, had pals, commonly interacted with their group, or went to church. Basically, the research took a extra refined strategy to understanding how the methods during which an individual lives impacts their well being, sometimes called the social determinants of well being. Usually, well being specialists take into consideration social determinants of well being when it comes to an individual’s race, the place they stay, whether or not they have entry to transportation or public parks, and their proximity to wholesome meals.

However Abnousi noticed a chance in Facebook to have an effect on particular person well being behaviors by social interplay and connection to a group. “There must be this idea of social biomarkers which can be indicative over an extended time frame of well being and illness. And so maybe we are able to use that to know and affect well being,” Abnousi mentioned in his interview with Frist.

Since Abnousi has come on board, he’s engaged in a number of public well being tasks. Whereas working at Constructing 8, Facebook’s experimental {hardware} group, he explored gathering anonymous patient data from hospitals as part of a venture aimed toward altering well being outcomes. The venture rapidly fell aside within the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data-privacy scandal.

Then, in 2018, Facebook developed a redirect tool that steered customers trying to buy opioids or in search of out habit counseling towards a federal disaster line. A yr later, Abnousi introduced a preventive well being characteristic in Facebook’s cellular app that recommends annual exams based mostly in your age. These embrace a blood strain take a look at, most cancers screening, and ldl cholesterol panel. It additionally reminds customers to get an annual flu shot. Customers can mark these numerous suggestions as accomplished in the event that they’re already carried out them.

That very same yr, Facebook launched a disease tracking device. When COVID-19 hit, it teamed up with Carnegie Mellon and put out symptom surveys. In partnership with the Harvard T.H. Chan Faculty of Public Well being, it also released data maps monitoring how individuals had been transferring across the globe with a view to assist well being specialists observe the trajectory of the illness.


Facebook has made just a few different attention-grabbing investments within the well being sphere. The corporate’s Synthetic Intelligence Analysis group (FAIR) developed expertise that might considerably cut back the time an MRI takes. In the meantime, Facebook Actuality Labs is engaged on a noninvasive brain-computer interface that goals to translate imagined instructions to a tool. The headset makes an attempt to make use of near-infrared light to track blood oxygen saturation and infer neural exercise, which is in its essence a type of well being monitoring. The expertise is nonetheless very a lot in improvement, nevertheless it may finally allow you to do issues akin to considering the phrases “finish sport” whereas enjoying in digital actuality and having the sport would come to an finish. Ought to this expertise grow to be accessible, it might have profound implications for disabled customers.

In 2019, the corporate acquired CTRL Labs, which has a wearable that makes use of the muscular tissues within the wrist to make instructions in a digital actuality atmosphere. This is in all probability not a lot a well being tracker because it is an modern approach to navigate Facebook’s gaming gadgets, nevertheless it’s notable as a wearable that makes use of biometric information.

General, Facebook’s most concerted effort within the public well being realm is the work that Abnousi is doing to raised perceive how the social community can be utilized to enhance well being outcomes. Already, many Facebook customers convene in disease-specific teams on Facebook to share info and assist each other. Early on in the course of the COVID-19 testing scarcity, many individuals who suspected they’d the signs gathered on Facebook to match their signs with others who really examined optimistic. These teams already provide a chance for individuals to extend their social interplay and likewise undertake higher well being outcomes.

In fact, these teams have a darkish aspect too. For a very long time, anti-vaccine teams have used Facebook to transmit false info and recruit new followers. The corporate has since cracked down on these teams, however usually it has had a tough time combating well being misinformation on its platform. Additionally, the existence of those teams serves as a reminder that Facebook Teams can be utilized to affect well being behaviors in adverse in addition to optimistic methods. Lastly, researchers have raised issues that utilizing Facebook itself could have adverse repercussions for an individual’s mental health.

What’s attention-grabbing a few Facebook well being tracker is that it has the potential to encourage individuals to concentrate on their well being collectively—even when they don’t stay close to each other. For customers in teams with a well being focus, a tracker with a social bent could function one other manner for members to attach and collectively have interaction in more healthy conduct. Such a tool may very well assist Abnousi and Facebook affect well being outcomes over time.

“I don’t assume healthcare can do that alone,” Abnousi informed Frist. “I don’t assume tech can do that alone. I don’t assume Facebook can do that alone. I believe to ensure that this to work, everybody . . . has to return collectively.”