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6 mins to read - 2020/01/27

Facebook’s Preventative Health Tool Wants Your Health Data

In October 2019, Facebook announced their new healthcare tool, Preventative Health. This initiative provides personalized reminders for Facebook users to stay on top of their health. For example, it will notify users to go to their annual doctor visit. Or get a cervical check. Or get their teeth cleaned. On the surface, it seems like a step in the right direction. Facebook has already successfully launched a feature that notifies willing blood donors when there is a nearby blood bank in need. And more prompts for us to take care of our health is a good thing, right? However, Facebook’s forays into the healthcare field raises disconcerting questions. How exactly is Facebook’s new suite of healthcare alerts going to work? And more importantly, how will Facebook be using our data?

How Does Preventative Health Work?

First of all, how will you, the user, experience Facebook’s new health push? Preventative Health is currently only available to users in the US. It is also, for now, only available as an app on iPhone and Android devices. In addition to pinging you with checkup reminders, it will also offer health tips and recommendations with regard to seasonal illnesses. The suggestions you receive will be tailored to your demographics, such as age and sex. You can also check off various actions you’ve completed so you can keep track. Preventative Health provides resources for finding affordable healthcare facilities in your area, and it allows you to share information easily with your friends and family.

Facebook’s walkthrough of its new preventative health tool all appears very by-the-book. They’re working with national health organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the American College of Cardiology. Facebook’s checkup prompts are informed by the official guidelines laid down by these organizations. To start off with, Preventative Health will focus on the leading causes of death in the United States: cancer and heart disease. It will also focus on the flu. However, it means to expand its focus in the future.

Taken at face value, Facebook’s Preventative Health tool applies the gameification approach to your health. It gives you a one-stop shop for managing your healthcare appointments, taking preventative measures such as getting mammograms or flu vaccines, and keeping track of when you last did what. By providing an easy means of sharing health tips with your Facebook contacts, Preventative Health is hoping to make our health initiatives go, *ahem*, viral.

Image Source: https://preventivehealth.facebook.com/

Facebook Preventative Health and Your Personal Data

However, all of this is powered by entering your personal, health-related, and geolocation data into the portal. And Facebook has left a pretty bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths when it comes to their treatment of data. Whether they’re selling our personal data to shady consulting firms to manipulate voters in upcoming elections, or whether they’re paying a $5 billion penalty to the FTC for data privacy violations, Facebook’s track record on data privacy doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Facebook insists they won’t use data provided through their Preventative Health tool to send users targeted ads. However, this does not cover other actions taken on Facebook, such as interacting with the Facebook page of a healthcare provider, or linking to an external website. Emily Mullin from OneZero points out that while on the surface Facebook won’t require you to submit any test results or diagnoses, they could very easily deduce that data based on changes in your browsing habits. What’s more, there is no mention that Preventative Health users will be able to view or delete their personal data from the tool.

What’s more, mHealth is still a new field. Health information shared via apps or social media aren’t legally covered by HIPAA. As such, all we have to go by is Facebook’s word that they won’t treat our data unethically. True, $5 billion is the largest penalty levied on a company by the FTC to date. However, it’s a small drop in the ocean of Facebook’s net worth, and may not be enough to deter them from future misdeeds.

The Future of mHealth and HIPAA

Facebook’s rollout of Preventative Health has renewed the call for updates to HIPAA. Over the past decade, the healthcare industry has been revolutionized by the internet. Patient files once kept in physical archives are now digitized and stored on the cloud. Many hospitals and private practices now perform a large part of their communications with patients over apps. It streamlines the process and clears up schedules for both healthcare professionals and patients.

However, it also means that masses of sensitive patient data exist in something of a legal limbo. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was signed in 1996. At that time, computers were just barely becoming household devices, and the internet was in its beginning stages. As comprehensive as the law was, there was no way it could have predicted how all-encompassing our smart devices would become within 15 years.

As mentioned above, HIPAA covers health data in the purview of actual institutions or professionals in the healthcare industry. For example, doctors, nurses, hospitals, and insurance providers. However, it doesn’t cover personal health data collected by mobile devices, such as health and wellness apps or FitBits. (Conveniently, Facebook is only offering Preventative Health on their mobile app, for now.) Certain groups are lobbying for a more inclusive update to HIPAA. It is possible that a new nationwide regulation will come into play that protects the data itself, rather than just data that belongs to a particular industry. The EU’s GDPR and California’s CCPA regulations take this approach, which seems to be successful in protecting user data.

Meanwhile, time will tell whether Facebook’s intentions with Preventative Health are as good as they claim. For more information about data security, and how your mHealth app can stay HIPAA compliant, talk to one of our mobile app experts.

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