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Facebook seeks entry into health care

On the heels of Apple and Samsung, Facebook is plotting its first steps into the health-care industry.

Facebook's interest in health care goes much deeper than Messenger stickers. Facebook

Facebook is following the likes of Samsung and Apple by planning to enter the health-care industry, starting with the creation of online support communities on its social network.

According to a Reuters exclusive, three people familiar with the matter say the tech giant is starting with online "support" communities to connect Facebook users who suffer from the same afflictions.

In addition, a separate team is considering how "preventative" applications could help people improve their lifestyles. These kinds of apps could include fitness and calorie trackers -- in the same manner as MyFitness Pal -- or perhaps could issue guidelines on nutrition, exercise and recommended food consumption.

Reuters sources say that in the past several months, the social networking giant has held meetings with "medical industry experts and entrepreneurs," and an R&D unit is due to be set up in which health apps will be tested. However, Facebook is still only at the idea stage.

Health care could be an avenue to drive new users to the site, as online communities can often be valuable sources of support for those suffering with health problems. There are thousands of websites and forums that offer both advice and forums for patients to connect -- such as PatientsLikeMe. Merged with the popularity and worldwide use of Facebook, such communities could be taken to a new level.

However, Facebook is late to a game already entered into by the likes of Apple and Samsung.

With the release of Apple's iOS 8 operating system, despite hurdles, the iPad and iPhone maker's HealthKit app is now available. This app, if enabled, gathers health and fitness data collected by third-party applications and displays it in one place.

Samsung, meanwhile, has launched the Gear Fit wearable and S Heath 3.0 Platform, which Samsung executives say is designed to "establish an ecosystem which will ultimately provide users with an integrated and more comprehensive view of their well being." The platform tracks health data via sensors when paired with devices such as the Gear Fit, analyzing information before displaying it on a user's smartphone. If the user consents, this data can also be sent to developers.

However, privacy is likely to be a hurdle. Facebook has come under fire this year for allowing researchers to manipulate news feeds for the sake of research, and with the rise in high-profile data breaches worldwide, individuals may be less keen to submit personal information about their state of health online.

According to Frank Williams, chief executive of Evolent Health, for such a plan to work beyond seeking remedies for colds and coughs, "people would need anonymity and an assurance that their data and comments wouldn't be shared with their online contacts, advertisers, or pharmaceutical companies."

This story originally published as "Facebook pursues entry into healthcare industry" on ZDNet.