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Facebook is promising UK health facilities 2,000 Portal devices

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They could reduce loneliness and improve telehealth

Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

UK health officials are partnering with Facebook to put Portal video calling displays in hospitals, care homes, and other facilities. Facebook will donate up to 2,050 Portals starting with a pilot program in Surrey and expanding to Manchester, Newcastle, London, and other areas. They’re meant to let residents communicate with loved ones they can’t see during the pandemic, while also to letting on-site employees coordinate with people who are working remotely and support telehealth efforts.

The tech-focused NHSX agency announced the news yesterday. In a statement, Facebook health technology head Freddy Abnousi said the company built Portal to “give people an easy way to connect and be more present with their loved ones,” and “with the global pandemic and social distancing measures, the ability to stay connected is more important than ever.”

Portal, first released in 2018, is a standalone display that makes video calls through Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. It can be more convenient than pulling out a phone to make a call, and it includes a wide-angle lens that can automatically zoom in on subjects. It’s one of Facebook’s first attempts at a mainstream hardware product, but before the pandemic, it was dogged by trust and privacy issues.

The hospital setting could be less problematic than a home if it treats the Portal like a tool and not an always-on device. On the other hand, integrating Facebook into a government health service could produce unknown complications. NHSX says facilities will be selected based on how well their Wi-Fi connectivity can support the Portal, for example, which could exacerbate any kind of digital divide. In the long term, NHSX is “exploring connectivity options” for care homes without Wi-Fi, including hotspots or data-enabled tablets.