Facebook's alleged plans to create a series of healthcare apps and forums may spur further controversy about the company's use of private data

Facebook readies healthcare service

Facebook is working on a set of healthcare apps and support communities to increase engagement with the site.

Following Apple and Google’s examples, Facebook decided to tap the potential of online health applications and started consultations with medical industry experts and entrepreneurs, Reuters has revealed.

The venture, only at its early stages, has been partly inspired by Facebook's previous health-related initiatives, such as its 2012 organ-donor status campaign which inspired 13,054 within one day to register as organ donors online in the United States – a 21-fold increase over the daily average of 616 registrations.

According to Reuters’ insider sources, Facebook’s analysts have noticed that people with chronic ailments such as diabetes would search social networking sites for advice, prompting the company to look into the possibility of creating dedicated support communities.

A small team is also considering new preventative care applications that would help people improve their lifestyles.

However, it is likely that the project will stir concerns about Facebook’s use of data and the users’ privacy. This week, Facebook was forced to apologise to users for manipulating news feeds for ‘research purposes’.

According to the sources, the firm is considering launching the first of its health care apps under a different name to avoid a possible data protection controversy, which would result from the app being directly connected with the Facebook brand. For example, recent research has shown people have fewer concerns about image-sharing site Instagram as they are not aware it is owned by Facebook.

Facebook's recent softening of its policy requiring users to go by their real names may also bolster the company's health plans. People with chronic conditions may prefer to use an alias when sharing their health experiences.

"I could see Facebook doing well with applications for lifestyle and wellness, but really sick patients with conditions like cancer aren't fooling around," said Frank Williams, chief executive of Evolent Health, a company that provides software and services to doctors and health systems.

People would need anonymity and an assurance that their data and comments wouldn't be shared with their online contacts, advertisers or pharmaceutical companies, Williams said.

It remains unclear whether Facebook will moderate or curate the content shared in the support communities, or bring in outside medical experts to provide context.

Facebook declined to comment on its health care plans.

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