Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg speaks during his keynote conference at the Mobile World Congress 2014 / Getty Images

Social network looks to establish support communities and healthcare apps

Facebook has plans to become involved in digital healthcare, and is exploring how best to optimise its existing social network in that pursuit.

Though still in its infancy, Facebook’s healthcare initiative is very real, according to sources close to Reuters.

The US tech giant hopes to create online “support communities” that would connect Facebook users suffering from shared illnesses and ailments.

There’s also been talk of preventative care apps designed to inform and improve users’ lifestyle.

Facebook has been holding meeting with medical industry experts and entrepreneurs, and also establishing a research and development unit to trial new health-oriented apps.

Facebook wants to develop healthcare apps

The company is encouraged by the results of their organ-donor initiative in 2012 that enabled users to choose their status.

On its first day, more than 13 thousands Americans registered, 21 times more than the daily average of real world physical registrations.

Facebook has also observed that many Facebookers use the site to search for advice on chronic conditions like diabetes.

The recent surge in online patient networks such as PatientsLikeMe indicate that people are increasingly willing to share their physical state on the internet.

Privacy, an area where the company has faced considerable criticism over the years, will likely prove a challenge.

But Facebook is already exploring how best to address that elephant in the room.

Health related advertisements would not be as targeted as other ones on the site, with pharmaceutical companies, for instance, prohibited from using Facebook to promote the sale of prescription drugs, due in part to concerns surrounding disclosures.

The company is also considering rolling out its first health application quietly and under a different name, understanding that Instagram’s incredible success is served by the fact that many of its users are unaware that it is owned by Facebook, according to in-house market research.

But the social network’s bread and butter is undergoing a PR makeover, especially following its softening of its ‘real name’ policy.

This is particularly pertinent to a healthcare venture as many people with chronic conditions may prefer to use an alias when sharing their health experiences.

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

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.