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Facebook hits pause button on research project that asked hospitals to share patient data

CNBC reports the tech giant has halted talks with U.S. hospitals to share anonymized patient information, and Facebook said no data has been shared or analyzed.

The Facebook logo is displayed at the Facebook Innovation Hub on February 24, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. The Facebook Innovation Hub is a temporary exhibition space where the company is showcasing some of its newest technologies and projects.

Facebook was in talks with U.S. hospitals to share anonymized patient data for a research project, but the plan has now been put on hold, according to CNBC.

In a statement sent to CNBC, Facebook said the “work has not progressed past the planning phase, and we have not received, shared or analyzed anyone’s data.”

The issue of patient consent wasn’t discussed in the early talks, a source told CNBC.

The social network company planned to pair hospital data about a patient (such as illnesses and medications) with what Facebook knows about the individual (such as age, marital status, children and community engagement). Uniting this data would give hospitals a way to determine which patients may need special care.

The initial focus of the project was on cardiovascular health.

Personally identifiable information would be obscured. But Facebook suggested using a technique called hashing to match up people who appeared in both of the sets of data.

The tech giant told CNBC it was talking to institutions such as the American College of Cardiology and Stanford University School of Medicine about participating.

Facebook provided CNBC with a quote from Cathleen Gates, interim CEO of the American College of Cardiology, confirming the budding collaboration.

“[T]he American College of Cardiology has been engaged in discussions with Facebook around the use of anonymized Facebook data, coupled with anonymized ACC data, to further scientific research on the ways social media can aid in the prevention and treatment of heart disease,” she said.

But for now, Facebook has pressed the pause button on the effort.

“Last month we decided that we should pause these discussions so we can focus on other important work, including doing a better job of protecting people’s data and being clearer with them about how that data is used in our products and services,” Facebook said in a statement sent to CNBC.

The fact that it’s is on hiatus is hardly surprising, as the Menlo Park, California-based company is in hot water following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Earlier this week, Facebook said it believes the data leak impacted up to 87 million users, according to Reuters.

This news comes at a time when nontraditional players are making moves in the medical world.

As for Facebook, it has dipped its toes into the healthcare space before. But this project is a big leap — and perhaps it will materialize into something beyond the planning stages someday.

Photo: Sean Gallup, Getty Images