How Facebook and Twitter are reacting to their growing influence on health

LAS VEGAS —You might not expect a heart doctor to work at Facebook. 

But for cardiologist Freddy Abnousi, M.D., joining the social media giant became how he felt he could move the needle in a way he couldn't advising individual patients with acute heart conditions.

"You could put a clinic and hospital on every corner and not impact health outcomes that much," Abnousi said.

Now, as head of healthcare research at Facebook, Abnousi is leading the charge at the social media company, studying the social and behavioral factors that impact health and play an outsized role in the overall equation.

Abnousi was one of several speakers on a panel at the HLTH conference Sunday that discussed the growing influence of social media platforms as patients seek out and share healthcare information.

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, he said.

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But those efforts have also been met with substantial suspicion. 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.

As CNBC reported, the project never made it out of the planning stage. But it served as an example of the privacy concerns social media giants have to consider as they tiptoe into the health space.

Accuracy and literacy

The platforms can have an outsize positive influence on helping disseminate health information. 

That is, when the information is correct. Lisa Bookwalter, director of Twitter's client solutions for health, said on the panel that the spread of misinformation, health-related or not, is a key concern for social platforms.

"It's obviously something that's on the minds of all the platforms," she said.

It's a problem beyond platforms that are largely based in the U.S. and court an American audience. Meng Zhang, a vice president at Chinese tech giant Tencent, said that 100,000 new health-related articles circulate each day on the company's WeChat platform, which boasts more than 1 billion monthly users, mostly in China.

Completely eliminating false information is "mission impossible," Zhang said, but WeChat does have some protocols in place to assist. For one, artificial intelligence can flag the most blatantly false posts and eliminate them, and Tencent is also pushing physicians that post articles that are shared on its platforms to take a less technical approach.

"There's a lot of consensus from the public that the platform needs to take certain responsibilities," Zhang said.

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Tencent is making efforts to better educate users to improve health literacy, also helping mitigate the spread of false or misleading health information, he said. WeChat users make 70 million health-related queries a day on the platform, he said, so helping them understand what they see is paramount.

Users can also load their insurance cards into the app to have that information more readily available, and Tencent is piloting tools that connect users who search for health information with doctors.

"We’re trying to link these people and really find them the network where they can find reliable [information]," he said.