Is Facebook Poised to Revolutionize Health Care?

25 Nov

Facebook health careBefore we dismiss appearances by Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg on ABC News Tuesday as orchestrated, feel-good public relations events less than a month before Facebook holds its initial public offering, consider this:

When Zuckerberg and Sandberg introduce and explain the new initiative, they could be revolutionizing health care.

Zuckerberg will appear on Good Morning America, and later on Tuesday, Sandberg will appear on World News With Diane Sawyer. Facebook is declining comment, but almost all observers are expecting them to introduce a tool that will “save lives.” That could be an expanded version of its Lifeline program, which allows people to alert the company when they think a friend is expressing suicidal intentions, a broader rollout of anti-cyberbullying initiatives or perhaps something altogether different.

Take, for example, a tool that helps friends alert Facebook when they are worried that a friend may be showing signs of suicidal intentions. Brian S. McGowan, a health care educator and education technologist who writes for The Atlantic, sees such a technology as being a way to end the isolated feelings patients suffer from. In March, McGowan wrote a general blog post on the concept of isolation in health care, but finding ways around it could be particularly useful in fighting depression.

“‘Has anyone else gone through this before?’ That’s one of the first things a person asks himself after being anointed a ‘patient.’ In illness, as in any other life events, we are social creatures looking for shared experiences and in need of support,” McGowan wrote. “But the reality is that our health care system is not designed to serve this purpose. Instead, our system evolved to promote isolation. And, in many ways, this isolation is very much at the heart of the patient experience.”

McGowan goes on to say building those ties between patients may be easier than developing a culture of shared decisions between doctor and patient.

“There are two solutions to the isolation experience. The first is to build layers upon the patient-clinician relationship – to build stronger ties, more connections, and a culture of shared decision-making between patient and physician. There are many advocating for this idea, but it requires cultural shifts across a medical profession that typically evolves at a snail’s pace and would require systemic changes in both policy and reimbursement,” he said. “The second is to build communities of patients with shared experiences, shared fears, and shared data – and it is this second solution that deserves much more public discourse, lest we get ourselves in an unexpected and unfortunate jam.”
While we’re all conscious about privacy, particularly when it comes to all things Facebook, such a tool could be a major groundswell in easing some of the hypertight privacy concerns surrounding online health care. By making it social on a platform like Facebook, the company could essentially be launching the cyber equivalent of being able to ask a friend “Is everything all right?” or “Are you feeling OK?” We’re more inclined to give honest – and potentially lifesaving – answers to a friend.


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