Facebook takes a first step into personal digital health with checkup reminder and screening tool

Tech giant Facebook launched a new feature to remind users to get health tests and screenings.

Facebook announced this week it is working with U.S. health organizations to offer a new preventive health tool that connects people to health resources and checkup reminders. The new feature will initially focus on cardiovascular health, cancer screening and seasonal flu.

The resources available in the tool are provided by the American Cancer Society, the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to Freddy Abnousi, M.D., head of healthcare research at Facebook, in a blog post.

Tens of millions of people in the U.S. are missing out on recommended preventive care, according to the CDC, Abnousi, a cardiologist, said.

"Preventive measures have the potential to detect disease early when it’s most treatable and, in some cases, prevent it from developing. Yet factors such as awareness, access, and cost create barriers to testing for many people," he wrote.

During a panel at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas this week, Abnousi said platforms like Facebook, which has nearly 1.6 billion daily users, can play a role in making the health experience more consumer-oriented rather than health system-oriented.

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Consumers can use the tool in the Facebook mobile app to find out which checkups, such as cholesterol tests or mammograms, are recommended by these health organizations based on the age and sex they provide. Reminders for flu shots will also appear at the appropriate time of year.

“Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women around the world and in many cases, it is 100% preventable. By incorporating prevention reminders into platforms people are accessing every day, we’re giving people the tools they need to be proactive about their heart health," Richard Kovacs, M.D., president of the American College of Cardiology, said in a statement.

But as social media platforms move into healthcare, it raises substantial privacy concerns. Facebook already faces scrutiny over privacy and its use of consumers' data. A complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission back in January claims that closed online support groups on Facebook—where individuals discuss sensitive health issues ranging from cancer treatments to living with bipolar disorder to addiction issues—were not as private as users had assumed.

RELATED: Complaint to FTC accuses Facebook of exposing sensitive health data in groups

Privacy experts and patient advocates argue that Facebook doesn't do enough to protect users’ personal health information or to ensure the data users upload will not be collected or used. 

Last year, Facebook sparked alarm after CNBC reported the company asked several major U.S. hospitals to share anonymized data about patients for a research project in which it would match it up with user data to help hospitals figure out which patients might need special care.

In the Facebook blog post, Abnousi wrote that the company took steps to ensure privacy and safety. The company, and the health organizations it is working with, will not have access to users' health test results, he wrote.

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"Personal information about your activity in Preventive Health is not shared with third parties, such as health organizations or insurance companies, so it can’t be used for purposes like insurance eligibility," the company said.

Facebook also will not show ads based on the information provided in the preventive health tool, Abnousi said.

"Other actions that you take on Facebook could inform the ads you see, for example, liking the Facebook page of a health organization or visiting an external website linked to from Preventive Health," he said.