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Facebook wants to give you medical advice. But can you trust it?

Despite widespread problems of mistrust and disinformation, Facebook is launching a mobile tool to show people what screenings and immunizations they should be getting based on their age and sex.

Facebook wants to give you medical advice. But can you trust it?
[Photos: Hush Naidoo/Unsplash; courtesy of Facebook]

Facebook is launching a new tool in the U.S. that will suggest tests and immunizations—such as a mammogram, cholesterol test, or flu shot—based on a person’s age and sex. The company wants to influence its billions of users to make healthier life choices, but given Facebook’s history of mishandling user data and an at times indifferent attitude toward misinformation on its site, people may not trust it.

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When users search for “preventive health” inside the Facebook app, they’ll now be redirected to a page that will serve them preventive health advice with a focus on heart health and cancer. To come up with these suggestions, Facebook partnered with the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, the American Cancer Society, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The reason we focused on heart disease, cancer, and flu is because heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in America. And flu? We’re in the midst of flu season,” says Freddy Abnousi, head of health care at Facebook. Abnousi is an interventional cardiologist by training; he teaches at Yale University and Stanford University and acts as an innovation adviser to the American College of Cardiology.

[Screenshot: courtesy of Facebook]
The interface is fairly simple, asking for two data points: age and sex (male, female, or all). In a demonstration, Abnousi entered his own information, which led to this list: a cholesterol test, a blood-pressure test, and a flu shot. The page describes what each test is, why it’s done, and how frequently a person should get it. For instance, a cholesterol test should be completed every four to six years for anyone over 20 years old. The interface also includes answers to common questions about the procedure.

Beyond that, the app allows you to set a reminder to make an appointment. You can also look up a federally funded health center where you can get the test, or mark it as something you’ve already done. If you’ve already had the test, the app will give guidance on when you should make your next appointment. Finally, the app gives you the opportunity to share this information with your network.

[Screenshot: courtesy of Facebook]

“The hope is that you engage in this information and learn about it and go and have a chat with your primary-care practitioner,” Abnousi says.

Whether Facebook will be able to turn these suggestions into action among its users is yet to be seen. Abnousi acknowledges that this is very much an experiment. The company will be looking at whether it can get people to engage with the tool online over the next 6 to 12 months. If it’s successful, Facebook will eventually study whether the interface is actually leading to more doctor visits.

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But the larger question is: Will people trust Facebook’s health advice? An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from April shows that more than 60% of Americans don’t trust Facebook to handle their personal information. Much of this distrust formed around Facebook’s failure to appropriately handle 50 million user profiles, which political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. At the time, Facebook was in conversation with several U.S. hospitals to get hold of anonymous patient data as part of a research project, according to CNBC. The report says that Facebook was intending to combine patient data with user data to see if it could improve health outcomes. The endeavor was shut down following the Cambridge Analytica news.

[Screenshot: courtesy of Facebook]
Facebook has made other inroads into health care since then. In 2018, the social network made the choice to start sending users searching for opioids to a crisis hotline. Earlier this year, the company launched “health support” groups to give members of its many health-oriented communities a way to ask anonymous questions. It also launched disease-mapping tools to help global public-health officials track disease outbreaks. For this latest project, the company currently has no intention of sharing any of the data garnered through its preventive-care tool with any of its partners, and only a restricted set of employees will have access. Abnousi also promised that Facebook would not use the data to serve ads.

The platform has one more problem that might turn people off to getting health information on its site: There is a lot of misinformation on Facebook, and a shockingly large proportion of health-related information is fake or misleading. The company has long taken the view that it does not want to be in the business of discerning between fact and fiction. Despite that, this year the company started cracking down on anti-vaccination propaganda, banning ads about anti-vaxxing and limiting the reach of posts with inaccurate information on the subject (though not eliminating them). It’s an important move, though also a belated one.

Now that the company is disseminating health information itself, building trust with people will be even more important.

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About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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