Facebook turns 15: 5 moves it's made in healthcare

It's been 15 years since Facebook launched on Feb. 4, 2004.

Facebook has since amassed 2.3 billion monthly active users, and serves as the parent company of two other popular social media companies: Instagram and WhatsApp. But it's more than a social network: Facebook is one of what many today refer to as the 21st century's "big five" tech companies, going head-to-head with traditional technology vendors like Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.

Mark Zuckerberg, the company's founder, chairman and CEO, has made healthcare one of his personal initiatives. Mr. Zuckerberg launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, MD, in 2015 with the mission to cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century. In late 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg announced plans to sell $13 billion in Facebook stock to fund the initiative.

In the past 15 years, Facebook as a company has made its own moves into the healthcare space — though not all have been successful.

Five aspects of healthcare Facebook has tried to tackle:

1. Radiology. Facebook's artificial intelligence research division is working with the radiology department at New York University School of Medicine in New York City on fastMRI, a collaborative research project applying AI to MRI scans. The fastMRI project aims to change the way an MRI machine creates an image by using AI to generate high-quality images from limited data. In late 2018, NYU School of Medicine published what it called the largest public release of raw MRI data to date as part of the project.

2. Suicide prevention. In 2017, Facebook unveiled plans to roll out an AI suicide-prevention program. Since then, the social network has faced criticism from public health experts, who question the tech company's use of "black box medicine." Facebook's AI uses pattern recognition to scan nearly every post on its platform for those containing suicidal thoughts and — in cases where the algorithm flags a user as high-risk for suicide — it connects them with mental-health resources and may contact law enforcement.

3. Addiction treatment. In August 2018, Facebook said it would crack down on advertisements marketing addiction treatment services that the company deemed "predatory." It's a notable move, since ads account for 98.5 percent of Facebook's revenue, according to its 2018 earning results. In a statement announcing the decision, Facebook expressed concern that some addiction treatment centers "keep people in a cycle of addiction with unproven treatment methods."

4. Opioid misuse. During 2018, Facebook released multiple policies aimed at curbing the way its users might use its services to obtain or promote opioids. In April, Facebook opted to shut down or control the use of hashtags related to opioids — such as #fentanyl, #oxycontin and #opioids — on Instagram. Two months later, Facebook said users flagged as seeking to purchase opioids on its platform would be redirected to information about a federal crisis help line, as part of an effort to cut down on illicit drug sales.

5. Hospital data. In a move that prompted significant backlash, CNBC in April 2018 reported that Facebook had asked several large U.S. hospitals to share anonymized patient data for a research project. At the time, Facebook said it was contemplating a project to match patient data with Facebook's data on users' social and economic demographics, which might help hospitals determine which patients require extra care. However, the company "paused" the exploratory effort amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

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