Google partnered quietly last year with Ascension – the nation's second-largest health care system – and has since gained access to detailed medical records of dozens million Americans, according to a Nov. 11 report from The Wall Street Journal.
The endeavor, codenamed "Project Nightingale," has enabled at least 150 Google employees to view patient health information, which includes diagnoses, laboratory test results, hospital admissions, and other data, according to internal documents and newspaper sources. In total, the data make up complete medical records, WSJ notes, and contain patient names and birth dates.
The move is the latest by Google to get a grip on the sprawling health industry. At the beginning of the month, Google announced an agreement to buy Fitbit, and is concerned about what it will do with all the sensitive health data gathered from the popular notebooks. Today's news is likely to spur more concern about health care professionals.
Neither Google nor Ascension have notified patients or doctors about data sharing. Ascension – a Catholic health insurance system – includes 34,000 providers who see patients at more than 2,600 hospitals, medical offices and other facilities in 21 states and the District of Columbia.
The massive Google data sharing project has several goals. For Google, the company is developing new software that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to make suggestions for caring for individual patients. Google's ultimate goal is to develop a searchable, cloud-based tool to host and research vast amounts of patient data – which can then be marketed to other health systems.
Ascension partly aims to improve patient care with the project. Internal documents seen by WSJ indicate that Ascension also hopes that Google mining will help identify more ways to generate revenue from patients, such as ordering more medical tests.
In a statement, Ascension's Executive Director for Strategy and Innovation, Eduardo Conrado, said:
As health care continues to evolve rapidly, we must transform to better meet the needs and expectations of those we serve, as well as our own caregivers and health professionals. To do so will require the programmatic integration of new care models delivered through the digital platforms, applications and services that are part of the daily experience of those we serve.
Tariq Shaukat, President of Google Cloud, added in the statement that, by working in partnership, Google hopes to "transform the delivery of healthcare through cloud power, data analytics, machine learning and modern productivity tools – ultimately improving results, reducing costs. and save lives. "
Ascension stated that the project is in compliance with federal privacy protection for health information and is "underpinned by a robust data security and protection efforts."
Healthcare experts told the WSJ that the project appears to be legal under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA). As the newspaper notes, the law "generally allows hospitals to share data with business partners without telling patients, as long as the information is only used to help the covered entity perform its health care functions." "