Can Facebook and Apple Inspire Americans to Watch Their Health?

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Facebook may be the next tech company to expand into health care and build the next health-focused app. Reuters reports that Facebook is currently planning its first foray into the field of health care, according to three anonymous sources familiar with the company’s plans. Facebook is exploring creating online “support communities,” which would connect users who are patients of various conditions or diseases, and “preventative care” applications that would help users improve their lifestyles. Facebook has recently held meetings with “medical industry experts and entrepreneurs,” and is establishing a research and development unit to test health apps.

While Facebook is still reportedly in the “ideas-gathering stage,” Reuters reports that health has been “an area of interest” for the social networking giant. Executives think that a health focus could increase users engagement with Facebook, as exemplified by the success of organ donor status initiative. On the day that the social network added the option for members to specify their organ donor status, 13,054 people registered online to be organ donors, when the daily average was 616 registrations. Facebook product teams also noticed that users with chronic conditions, like diabetes, would search the social network for advice. That, combined with the rise of social networks like PatientsLikeMe, demonstrates that people are growing comfortable with the idea of sharing their personal experiences with symptoms and treatments with online communities.

Facebook isn’t alone in thinking that its status as the largest social network in the world could lend some real value to future health-related initiatives. With regards to research using the social network, U.S. News reported in 2013 that a study of Facebook’s geodata by the Boston Children’s Hospital’s informatics program found that Facebook users’ interests could help public health researchers predict, track, and map obesity rates in specific locations. Study co-leader John Brownstein said at the time that, “Online social networks like Facebook represent a new high-value, low-cost data stream for looking at health at a population level.”

While a range of companies are forging ahead into health care, many are focusing on lifestyle and wellness applications. Features to assure users of their anonymity and privacy will be crucial for Facebook, or any other tech company, to build support communities or apps that would provide meaningful health resources. Privacy — and Facebook’s poor reputation surrounding it — will be a significant challenge with the development of health-focused initiatives, and Facebook is considering rolling out its first health app “quietly and under a different name.” Facebook-commissioned market research that found that many of its users were unaware that photo-sharing app Instagram is Facebook-owned, and it seems that the social networking giant considers a healthy distance from its main brand an option to consider for a community or an app which users would trust with personal information on their health.

But significant concerns with privacy aside, a major question with health care initiatives — not only those by Facebook, but also by Apple, which recently debuted HealthKit and will soon release the Apple Watch — is whether they can change users’ behavior. Many, including Apple and Facebook, believe that they can, and that they can collectively effect a cultural shift in the way that Americans regard and manage their health.

HealthKit is expected to change the health care industry and the way that it handles patient data. Patient-generated data, gathered from apps that run on users’ smartphones, and clinical data from health care providers’ electronic medical records systems, will be able to be combined and analyzed together. Apple’s placement of HealthKit-enabled apps on millions of iPhones with the iOS 8 Health app could massively increase the adoption of health apps beyond the rudimentary step counters that have been one of the mainstays of the space.

Malay Gandhi of the Rock Health accelerator told VentureBeat that HealthKit, in particular, puts consumers and their phones at the center of a new health care ecosystem, where they own and manage their own data, and choose when and how to give services and health care providers access to it. As VentureBeat points out, the concept isn’t exclusively Apple’s, but what Apple brings is scale, which could prove crucial to spurring consumers to widespread adoption of health apps and all that goes with them.

A health care initiative by Facebook could have the same potential effect. Where HealthKit could give users an easy way to track and store their health-related data, preventative care apps by Facebook could help users to take control of the lifestyle choices that they make and take steps to proactively prevent future health issues. Similarly, support communities could enable patients with chronic conditions to interface with each other and possibly with medical experts, giving them the opportunity to share specific experiences and information in ways that they might not otherwise be able.

Max Ogles wrote for The Next Web that major psychological hurdles stand in the way of the wide adoption of wearables and health-tracking apps. The variety of products that seek to change users’ behavior all face similar challenges, ones that are inherent in the difficult process of building a device or an app that will get users to change their old habits, adopt new ones, and stick with them. Ogles identifies apathy, the balance between simplicity and complexity, the struggle between personalization versus scale, the possibility for relapse into bad habits, and the challenge of integration into real life as significant challenges, and notes that technological solutions need to integrate deep engagement with physical actions and activity.

While Ogles says that, “Many wearables lose their appeal over time because people get sick of tracking health data,” Apple is hoping that its Apple Watch can be engaging enough — or perhaps just expensive enough — to get users to continue using it even after the novelty wears off. Much of the habit-building capability will depend upon the apps that developers create, either for wearables or for smartphones. As Facebook, Apple, and others push the momentum of health  care-focused apps and technology forward, the industry will, by necessity, figure out how to keep users engaged with apps long enough to form new habits.

While Facebook, Apple, Google, and the host of other tech companies looking to gain traction in health care launch apps, frameworks, social networks, and devices, it will need to do a lot more than just put an app into the hands of consumers. Integrating health care initiatives with efforts by health care providers and insurers will be an important part of helping them to gain traction and help users change their behavior, as will smart personalization of these tech-enabled communities and experiences.

Changing users’ behavior — and making Americans more interested in tracking and improving their health — will depend not only on making health-focused apps, social networks, and wearable devices engaging, but on demonstrating how the technology is tied to a clear objective or trajectory of progress. That will motivate users to stay engaged and take actions to improve their health — a prerequisite if Apple and Facebook’s apps are going to go beyond experiments and novelty to become meaningful and powerful tools to change consumers’ behavior.

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