How companies use consumers' digital footprint to track their health needs: 5 things to know

Companies are taking note of consumers' digital footprint — how often they post on social media, or how frequently they check their phones late at night, for example — for clues to learn more about their mental and emotional health, according to a report by The New York Times.

The theory that an individual's online footprint may reveal important information about their health serves as the basis behind an emerging field called digital phenotyping, which aims to assess consumers' well-being based on their interaction with their digital devices.

Here are five things to know about the trend.

1. Researchers and prominent technology companies are starting to track consumers' digital footprint to examine how their online activity may correlate with potential disease symptoms.

"Our interactions with the digital world could actually unlock secrets of disease," said Sachin  Jain, MD, CEO of patient healthcare delivery company CareMore Health, which assisted in a study analyzing Twitter users' posts for signs of sleep issues. "It could help with understanding the effectiveness of treatments."

2. One of the more ambitious digital phenotyping projects is currently being conducted by Facebook, which uses artificial intelligence to scan posts and live video streams on its social network for signs of users' possible suicidal thoughts. Facebook's algorithm detects certain language patterns, assigns a score to those patterns and potentially contacts a Facebook review team if necessary.

3. In some instances, the social network website will send users supportive notes with suggestions to contact helplines or other healthcare experts. In more urgent cases, Facebook notifies local law enforcement to dispatch officials to the user's reported location. Facebook officials told The New York Times its response team has worked with emergency workers more than 100 times during the past month, according to the report.

4. While some healthcare researchers applaud the effort, others have raised concerns with Facebook's involvement in users' lives, particularly the delivering of medical advice by individuals who do not possess a medical license and the inability for users to opt out of the language pattern scans, the report states.

"It's a great idea and a huge unmet need," Steve Steinhubl, MD, director of digital medicine at the La Jolla, Calif.-based Scripps Translational Science Institute, told The New York Times. "[However, Facebook is] certainly right up to that line of practicing medicine not only without a license, but maybe without proof that what they are doing provides more benefit that harm."

5. A spokesperson for Facebook told The New York Times the company deletes the algorithmic scores associated with posts after 30 days, and said it worked with suicide prevention groups when developing the effort. Data regarding cases in which emergency responders were involved are kept in a separate system not tied to users' profiles, according to the spokesperson.

To access the full report, click here.

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