Facebook “Likes” Healthcare — Should You Be Concerned?

Would you share your personal health information on Facebook? If you’re like most doctors, the answer to that question isn’t just “no,” but “hell no.” Yet if Zuckerberg and company have their way, millions of people could be on the verge of doing just that.

According to recent media reports, the world’s largest social network is exploring the idea of creating “support communities” where people dealing with various ailments and illnesses can connect with one another. After all, Facebook’s entire premise is to help people find and share information so why not offer similar services in subject matters that are so central to so many people’s lives?

On the other hand, given Facebook’s insistence that users use their real names and its incredible ability to mine user data to better target ads, the concept raises as many questions as it answers. Do people really want to share their medical information in such a public setting? What does sharing such information on a network that prohibits anonymity mean for PHI? And what would Facebook’s entry into the field mean for healthcare providers, existing patient communities and the people who rely on them?

At this point, it’s too early to speculate about specifics but a general picture is already emerging about how healthcare on Facebook is evolving and what it might mean for providers. Consider:

Current health-related Facebook pages are more about marketing than medicine: According to a recent study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR), 32.2% of pages dedicated to chronic diseases focused on marketing and promotion while just 9.4% were devoted to providing actual support.

Facebook’s insistence on real names may be softening: The company recently promised to review its “real names” policies after erroneously suspending accounts from drag queens and others who used alternative names.  Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that the company is also developing stand-alone apps, including healthcare offerings, that could possibly allow users to remain anonymous.

Cosmetic surgery is likely a low priority: If the JMIR study offers any insights, Facebook-managed support communities will focus at least initially on high-profile chronic conditions. Based on current patient-support pages, which are dominated by diabetes, arthritis and breast cancer, pages dedicated to elective and highly personal procedures won’t appear any time soon.

Then again, if Facebook does decide to pursue a patient-community strategy, it’s safe to say the company will assign prodigious resources to the effort. Considering that Apple, Google and countless startups are also turning their attention to healthcare, it’s more important than ever to make sure your own efforts are on the mark.

Doctor Takeaway

Establish a presence before other players enter the field

As the worlds of healthcare and social media increasingly intersect, potential patients will naturally gravitate toward providers who participate. Doctors who make themselves known in the venues where aesthetic consumers congregate gain the equivalent of a first-mover advantage against both other doctors around town and the tech giants of Silicon Valley.

About Rob Lovitt

Rob Lovitt is a longtime writer and editor who believes every good business has a great story to tell. He has written for dozens of magazines and websites, including NBCnews.com, Expedia.com and the inflight magazines of Alaska, Horizon and Frontier airlines.

, ,