Two experts debate whether Facebook should get into health

  • Facebook could do a lot more in health care, and as recently at last month was planning to forge data-sharing agreements with top hospitals.
  • Now, that project is on pause.
  • Could it have done some good? We asked a venture capitalist and a health data expert to weigh in.
A protester with the group 'Raging Grannies' holds a sign during a demonstration outside of Facebook headquarters on April 5, 2018 in Menlo Park, California.
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A protester with the group 'Raging Grannies' holds a sign during a demonstration outside of Facebook headquarters on April 5, 2018 in Menlo Park, California.

Facebook had planned to work with hospitals and other medical groups on a proposal to share data about the social networks of its most vulnerable patients. That project is now on pause until Facebook addresses issues around user privacy and data sharing, CNBC reported Thursday.

The story garnered a lot of mixed reactions from the health community and beyond. Some folks were downright furious that Facebook had ever considered such a plan and others praising the social network for trying to do something good with its data.

So I asked two experts — a health data technologist and a physician now working in venture capital — to weigh in on the pros and cons. Here's what they had to say:

'I'm worried about more medical ads'

Dan Gebremedhin, physician and a health investor at Flare Capital Partners:

"My initial reaction was skepticism after hearing about Facebook's plans to integrate health data to attempt to 'help patients.'

The specific use case example of identifying patients with few social supports in the area after discharge from the hospital seemed to be quite contrary to my experience as a practicing internal medicine hospitalist, as well as my past experience as a medical director at a health plan.

There are more humanistic and reliable ways to acquire this information and to provide support to a patient if they have an identified social determinant need. How about asking the patient, their healthcare proxy, or the primary care provider?

Given the variability in user activity on Facebook, I'm not sure that this information would be correlated and accurate at the patient level. Furthermore, there was dissonance between their use of metadata to make patient level recommendations. My quick take is that this attempt to integrate health data is another way to fuel consumer behavior on the platform and attempt to advertise to users on health care products. I haven't seen a significant number of major medical ads on Facebook (clinical services, pharmaceutical products, medical device); but after hearing this news (and if Facebook moves ahead with the project), I would not be surprised to see more of them."

'If done right, this could have benefited patients'

Fred Trotter, chief technology officer of CareSet Systems and a health data author:

"The divide between 'social data and 'health care' data is pretty artificial.

Patients already copy their health care records into Facebook to ensure that their the friends stay current. Family and friend groups use frequently use Facebook to coordinate meals, caregiving shifts and other community resources that people with health crises need.

Thinking about this as 'social media' vs 'health care data' is the wrong mental model. In reality this is an example of privacy concerns separating two parts of peoples' lives artificially. Most of us would benefit from having a professional care team interfacing with community resources. And integration with hospital data and social media data could really help people here. The recent betrayals of trust, not just by Facebook, but by companies like Equifax, MyFitnessPal and Grindr are tragic because they means that almost no one can see the upsides.

This is frustrating to those of use in health care innovation, because it means that we live with all of the downsides of digital health records, but none of the upside."

What do you think? Would you trust Facebook with your health data? Let us know at @CNBCTech