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 surrounding disclosures.
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.
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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.