Social networks soon able to diagnose illness?

  • 25 Jul

Data and predictive analysis may turn social networks into diagnostic tools

Medicine is becoming increasingly digitised nowadays. And the mirror-image of this phenomenon is that digital platforms are becoming more medically attuned, as the masses of data flowing from the digital footprints of our online browsing can provide useful clues to our state of health. Photos published by Internet users may reveal the incipient symptoms of physical illness, while text-based content can potentially indicate psychological disorders ahead.

Geolocation data, details of our eating habits, travel schedules, posts on trips abroad, plus our browsing history may prove to be a mine of information when it comes to analysing the state of a person’s body and – mens sana in corpore sano – his or her mind. Which means that Facebook and the other social networks that collect masses of personal data on their users may in the near future come to serve as a valuable database for assisting with medical diagnoses.  

An analysis of posts on these online platforms is already capable of anticipating behaviour and helping to prevent suicide. So will Facebook soon be able to diagnose cancer in a person even before s/he is feeling any effects? When someone posting on the social networks complains of an abrupt loss of weight or night sweats that might indicate the presence of a lymphoma. Morning stiffness and a highly sensitive skin may be signs of auto-immune disease. This sort of predictive capability may well help to save lives or avoid a deterioration in their condition. And what, among the benefits of social networks, could be more valuable than that?  Unless of course this sort of examination is seen as crossing the boundary lines of privacy or medical secrecy or feeding the hypochondria to which our modern societies tend to be prone.

By Laura Frémy