Facebook in Healthcare

A story on Reuters reported late last week that Facebook is making an entry into the healthcare space. Here’s an excerpt from the article about Facebook’s plans for healthcare:

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.

This move is especially interesting when paired with the announcements of Apple Health, Samsung Health, and Google Fit (and a few other Google health initiatives like Calico). It’s not the first time that big corporations have seen an opportunity in healthcare (See Microsoft HealthVault and Google Health). However, we have yet to see any of these big corporations really make a dent on healthcare.

The reality for many of these large corporations is that they don’t realize the crazy complexities that exist in healthcare. Many like to site the healthcare privacy argument as a reason for their failure. No doubt, HIPAA and privacy are a challenge for these organizations. In fact, I can already hear the outcry of people talking about Facebook and privacy of their health data. Many don’t trust Facebook with privacy and with good reason. However, privacy is the least of the reasons why these big corporations have a challenge entering the healthcare space.

Remember that healthcare is a complex beast with the largest customer being the government (ie. Medicare and Medicaid). Healthcare is not a rational market. The government, employer owned health insurance, health insurance plans, etc etc etc all make healthcare extremely complex to navigate full of perverse incentives. Plus, how do you do an ROI on the value of saving someone’s life?

While I’m skeptical of any large corporation entering healthcare, I’m actually quite interested in what Facebook could do to help healthcare. No doubt, a lot of healthcare already exists on Facebook.

Just a few weeks ago I was running up an escalator to catch a flight and sliced my big toe from top to bottom (you should see the pics). Luckily TSA was really helpful and I made my flight. Once I got home, I assessed the damage and wasn’t sure if I should go get sutures or not. I turned to Facebook where I posted a picture of my toe and tagged a few of my doctor friends. Long story short, my doctor friends told me I should go to the doctor and quickly, because if I waited until the next day they wouldn’t be able to suture it.

This is a small example, but Facebook was really effective for me. In fact, I posted a follow up picture a few days later (you know how men always like to show off their scars) and a doctor friend told me it was healing well. Of course, many might say that it was a small flesh wound and so that’s not as big a deal to post on Facebook. Would I post me health details if I had some chronic condition?

The interesting thing is that chronic patients are more than happy to give up all privacy in search of a cure. Unfortunately, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s part of the reason why Patients Like Me has been so successful. Plus, Patients Like Me has proved that we want to take part in online support communities for our conditions.

We’ll see if Facebook can really execute on online support communities like they have on Patients Like Me. It will be a real challenge for them because it’s not the focus of the company. However, they’re obviously well connected to a lot of people that could and would benefit from these types of healthcare communities. No doubt many people on Facebook don’t visit or even know about sites like Patients Like Me.

I’ll be interested to see what Facebook does in this space. I think they’d be smart to roll it off into a separate product that focuses on things like privacy and security. Being tied to the Facebook brand is a huge liability in this case. Plus, the value of Facebook to a Facebook created healthcare community is not in the Facebook brand, but in the Facebook audience and reach.

Besides creating various healthcare communities similar to Patients Like Me, I think Facebook has a huge opportunity to use social pressure to influence healthcare decisions. Changing behavior is an extremely hard thing to accomplish. However, never underestimate the power of positive peer pressure. Peer pressure can be one of the most powerful ways to change people’s behavior. Unfortunately, it works for good and bad. Facebook has all of your peers mapped to you. Can Facebook use that to help you become healthier? If they can, they’ll be on to something.

What do you think of Facebook possibly entering healthcare?

About the author

John Lynn

John Lynn

John Lynn is the Founder of HealthcareScene.com, a network of leading Healthcare IT resources. The flagship blog, Healthcare IT Today, contains over 13,000 articles with over half of the articles written by John. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 20 million times.

John manages Healthcare IT Central, the leading career Health IT job board. He also organizes the first of its kind conference and community focused on healthcare marketing, Healthcare and IT Marketing Conference, and a healthcare IT conference, EXPO.health, focused on practical healthcare IT innovation. John is an advisor to multiple healthcare IT companies. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can be found on Twitter: @techguy.