Facebook's new tool tells users what checkups they need, where to get them

Emphasizing users' privacy, the tool aims to synthesize preventive care recommendations from major professional and federal health organizations into simple, consumer-friendly recommendations and reminders.
By Dave Muoio
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Facebook is again expanding its public health messaging efforts with the launch of a new tool that shows users in the U.S. a list of recommended preventive tests or checkups, sets scheduling reminders and connects users to local providers of those services.

Born of partnerships with the American Cancer Society, the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association and the CDC, the social media company’s Preventive Health tool translates the clinical guidelines from each of these organizations into generalized checklists and reminders that are easier for the average Facebook user to act upon.

“The goal of the tool here is not to get complicated,” Dr. Freddy Abnousi, head of healthcare research at Facebook, told MobiHealthNews. “This is a very simple tool, and what we’ve doing is we’re taking the expertise that’s been in the hands of these experts … and making [it] consumer-friendly and delivering it to every single person on the Facebook platform so they have access to it. So, we’re amplifying the message of our partners in a consumer-friendly way so that our users can engage with it and, as a result, engage in primary care.”

Each of these simplified screening recommendations and interactive checklists is generated based on user-submitted age and sex. From there, the tool provides users with a map of nearby Federally Qualified Health Centers where they can receive the recommended services, as well as another map for local flu shot providers that was developed by Boston Children’s and employed by the CDC. Users can also share the tool with their Facebook friends to encourage others to understand and seek out similar preventive care resources.

That being said, sharing features within the tool are intentionally limited to promoting the tool's use — excluding data like what services were recommended, what information was input or even if whether the tool was used by the person sharing it. In a nod to the sensitivity of health data (and perhaps an acknowledgement to Facebook’s ongoing data privacy scrutiny), Abnousi was quick to stress the tool was designed as an awareness and information resource rather than a way to collect and use data.

He said that recorded user interactions related to the tool are not being shared with third-party partner organizations or used to inform advertisements, and that Facebook will never have access to any of the results or other data generated during the healthcare interactions promoted by the tool. Data that is stored during the tool’s use is secured, limited to that which is necessary for its function (such as which checkups the user marks as completed, or which reminders they’ve set), and is screened from all other users as well as from the majority of employees working at Facebook.

“We’ve taken steps from the beginning as we built this product to really build privacy into every single part of this conversation,” he said. “This is one of the reasons why [the tool] is so simple, [and] this is one of the reasons why we don’t ask questions about people’s backgrounds, etc., because we want to just keep it as tailored as possible.”

Facebook is eventually looking to build upon its tool to include more resources, more partner organizations and support for users outside of the U.S. However, Abnousi said that such expansions will have to come after the company ensures that the base platform is working as intended.

“We want to see if it’s working, whether it’s something that people are actually engaging with, etc. So in terms of expansion and growth plans, we’re going to spend the next six to 12 months really learning about how to get this right for people before doubling down on any further expansion.”

WHAT’S THE IMPACT

Much like Facebook’s other health and wellness initiatives, the Preventive Health tool is is an opportunity to make a large-scale health impact on the social network’s 2 billion-plus active monthly users.

“We lose far too many lives in the U.S. to preventable disease, and if you just look at heart disease and cancer alone, we lost 1.3 million lives last year. As clinicians, as healthcare people, we know a signifiant portion of these lives lost are completely preventable,” Abnousi said. “The question is, given that they’re preventable by some fairly standard clinical practices … why does that gap exist? Why is it that despite the fact that we could save so many lives, that millions of Americans every year miss that preventive healthcare that’s right for them?”

Here in particular, Abnousi emphasized the access and simplicity of his company’s new tool in respect to reaching populations typically underserved by the healthcare system.

“You also have got to remember that when it comes to prevention, it doesn’t impact everyone equally — if you are disadvantaged from a socioeconomic perspective, you also tend to be disadvantaged from a health outcomes perspective. So the reason we built this preventive health tool is to help us bridge this gap,” he said.

THE LARGER TREND

News of the Preventive Health tool’s launch comes just a few weeks after a mental health campaign in which the social media network added features encouraging users to initiate private, supportive conversations with their peers. Prior to this, the company’s mental health-minded efforts have included an AI-based suicidal post detection tool, suicide prevention support on Facebook Live and new privacy features for Facebook Groups focused on mental health discussions.

Looking more broadly, the past year has also seen Facebook release new disease mapping tools, surface notifications of nearby blood donation opportunities to users and clamp down on vaccine misinformation in its searches.

It’s also worth noting that Facebook has often been the subject of data privacy concerns, and the handling of health information on its platform is no exception. An investigation published last month found some period tracking apps were using the company’s SDKs and subsequently sharing users’ sensitive data with the social media service.

ON THE RECORD

"We need an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to close the preventive health services gap, especially in economically distressed communities,” Aneesh Chopra, the former chief technology officer of the U.S. who now serves on Facebook’s health advisory board, said in a statement provided by the company. “Facebook's Preventive Health tool builds on its enormous reach in a manner that complements many of the well-intentioned strategies we've historically relied upon that have fallen short."