Facebook Teams With Health Orgs to Launch Preventive Health Tool

Health Prevention Tool

The social media giant and its partners say the mobile app will provide reminders and resources while maintaining users’ privacy.

A new tool launched by Facebook in partnership with four major health organizations is designed to help guide users through preventive care measures for cancer, heart disease, and seasonal flu. The Preventive Health mobile app debuted in the United States on October 28, 2019.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), greater use of preventive services such as cancer screenings, blood pressure and cholesterol readings, and immunizations could save more than 100,000 American lives each year.

The Preventive Health tool was developed in collaboration with the American Cancer Society (ACS), the American College of Cardiology (ACC), the American Heart Association (AHA), and the CDC.

“Preventive measures have the potential to detect disease early when it’s most treatable and, in some cases, prevent it from developing,” said Freddy Abnousi, MD, the head of healthcare research at Facebook, in a statement. “Yet factors such as awareness, access, and cost create barriers to testing for many people.”

“For doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, it can be difficult to get the message out about the importance of prevention to the public,” says John Rumsfeld, MD, PhD, the chief innovation officer with the American College of Cardiology, who helped to create the tool. “Facebook has a platform that has unprecedented reach.”

About 7 in 10 U.S. adults use Facebook, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.

For now, the tool’s focus is on the top two leading causes of death in the United States — heart disease and cancer — as well as the flu, which affects millions of people every year.

Privacy Concerns in the Past

The partner organizations insist that patient privacy will be protected and that no user data will be exposed. But Facebook has had to address concerns about users’ privacy in the past.

In a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and made public earlier this year, Facebook was accused of violating users’ privacy by not adequately protecting user data and by sharing health information disclosed in private groups with advertisers.

In July 2019, the FTC ordered Facebook to pay a $5 billion penalty and imposed new privacy requirements on the company.

In its privacy statement in the app, Facebook says that it will not share information about user activity with third parties, such as health organizations and insurance companies, and that activity will not be visible to other users. It also states that Facebook will not ask for or collect patient test results.

“We get reports every day about how your information on the internet may be shared with third parties,” says Robert Smith, PhD, the vice president of cancer screening with the American Cancer Society. “Facebook reassured us that all data would be private. I don’t see any drawbacks right now. Anybody using [the app] has got to feel confident and trust that this is their information and it’s not going anywhere other than their personal device.”

Dr. Rumsfeld adds that none of the health organizations would have agreed to participate in the development of the program if they had privacy concerns. “Plus, there’s no question about data privacy because there’s no real data involved,” he says. “It’s purely reminders.”

How the Health Prevention Tool Works

To access the tool, individuals can search for “preventive health” on the Facebook app and download it. Based on factors such as age and gender, the tool tells users what tests and services are recommended for them.

For example, the platform may suggest blood pressure and cholesterol checks; screenings for cervical, breast, or colon cancer; or an annual flu shot.

“Too often women go too long between the examinations that are recommended,” says Dr. Smith, who helped develop the tool. “If you fail to get regular mammograms, the consequences can be tragic.”

When tests are done, users can note completion dates in the app and set reminders to schedule future checkups.

“There are literally thousands of scientific articles showing the advantages of reminder systems,” says Smith. “But being busy and keeping track of these things is difficult.”

Help Connecting With a Healthcare Provider

Eduardo Sanchez, MPH, MD, the chief medical officer for prevention with the American Heart Association, notes that some minimal information may be offered on how to improve heart health, but users are prompted to get official direction from a healthcare provider.

“The message really is: ‘Get your numbers, but then go see your doctor,’” he says. “The connection with primary care is critically important. You are meant to make the connection to primary care so that the appropriate interpretation of tests is done with the patient. A primary care provider may suggest that you need to be on a medication, for example.”

If a user does not have a doctor already, the app can connect them to federally qualified health centers (FQHC) near them. These nationwide centers offer services for people who are uninsured or underinsured, with fees based on what patients can afford to pay.

“Step one is raising awareness and activating people,” says Dr. Sanchez of the tool’s first phase.

“I’m a cardiologist,” says Rumsfeld, “and while I love taking care of patients, I’m excited to have a chance with this tool to reach a wider public and prevent disease in the first place.”

“We get reports every day about how your information on the internet may be shared with third parties,” says Robert Smith, PhD, the vice president of cancer screening with the American Cancer Society. “Facebook reassured us that all data would be private. I don’t see any drawbacks right now. Anybody using [the app] has got to feel confident and trust that this is their information and it’s not going anywhere other than their personal device.”

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