Is Facebook making moves in healthcare?

Facebook ads are often eerily personal, showing you the shoes you've been obsessing over for weeks or a restaurant in the city you're traveling to next. Soon, those ads might get even more personal, targeting users' health.

The company could be about to jump headfirst into healthcare advertising and data analytics, according to some in the industry, combining what it already knows about its users with healthcare-specific data.

Right now, Facebook's business model is centered around advertising. The company sells access to detailed information about its users for targeted ads (though the company doesn't specifically sell users' actual data).

"In the near term, it's pretty clear that their strategy will be to extend their existing business model to healthcare providers and insurers," said Paul Clark, director of healthcare research for Digital Reasoning. "Just like any other business, in healthcare you still need to acquire customers and have relationships with those customers in the digital space. That's the value proposition."

A hospital or health system might one day buy data from Facebook to find out which users may be looking for fertility services and lure in new patients.

But it could be a two-way street. Facebook could get data from the hospital, combine it with the user data it already has, and give the hospital the same sort of information. That's what Facebook was talking to U.S. hospitals about right before the Cambridge Analytica scandal hit.

Such a strategy raises questions about both medical privacy and over-utilization from supplier-induced demand, Clark said.

Nevertheless, it's apparent to him that this is what Facebook is doing. "If you're currently not selling advertising to healthcare providers, and healthcare providers could benefit from targeting patients, from a pure business perspective the signs are pretty clear."

While that strategy isn't limited to the short term, Facebook likely has other long-term ambitions too. The company might try to target advertising even more, by predicting which conditions their users have. Or the company might not need to predict, since it could gain access to actual patient data that would reveal the story.

Just as Iqvia, formerly IMS Health, and other companies buy patient data from EHR vendors, pharmacies and others in the healthcare industry, so too could Facebook.

"Facebook has an incredible data set on individuals," said Dr. Brian Martin, founder and CEO of Recentia Health Corp. "Now all they need is health records."

Martin has good reason to think this could be the road the company is going down: When an executive recruiter approached him about working for Facebook, the recruiter asked if he knew about IMS Health's business model.

In theory, much like the data bought and sold by Iqvia and others, the EHR data Facebook gains would be de-identified. But just as with Iqvia's data, there's the potential for re-identification. "They have enough technology in place where they could fairly easily re-identify," Martin said.

That matters for targeted advertising. If Facebook could link health data to specific people, it could serve those people specifically targeted ads from pharmaceuticals and others.

"It would be hard for Facebook to compete head to head against Iqvia," Martin said. "But they have a really good advertising infrastructure."

Facebook was not immediately available for comment.

The company could also be interested in healthcare data for more benevolent reasons, said Dr. Steven Lee, co-founder and chief science officer of Opternative, an eye health startup. "One of the key benefits of linking Facebook data to healthcare data is compliance," he said. The platform might, for example, send medication reminders.

For this to work, the company might ask patients directly for their data, he said. But Facebook would need to work very hard at establishing trust to accomplish that. And trust, especially now, is running low.


Rachel Z. Arndt

Rachel Arndt covers technology for Project Japan. Her work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Quartz, Fast Company, and elsewhere. She has MFAs in nonfiction and poetry from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s degree from Brown.


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