Google secretly gathered millions of patient records across 21 states, in an effort dubbed "Project Nightingale," reports The Wall Street Journal. Neither doctors nor patients were made aware of the effort, according to the report.
The Wall Street Journal's Rob Copeland reports that the data amassed in the program includes "lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, complete with patient names and dates of birth," and that as many as 150 Google employees may have access to the data.
The New York Times corroborated much of the report later in the day, writing that "dozens of Google employees" may have access to sensitive patient data, and that there are concerns some Google employees may have downloaded some of that data.
Google has partnered with health heavyweight Ascension, a Catholic health care system based in St. Louis that operates across 21 states and the District of Columbia. The company calls itself "a faith-based healthcare organization dedicated to transformation through innovation across the continuum of care." According to the WSJ, Google is using data from the system to design software that tailors individual patient care using "advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning."
Forbes reports that as a part of Project Nightingale, Ascension uploaded patient data to Google's Cloud servers. The idea was that by using the system, Ascension health providers could use a tool called Patient Search to pull up individual patient pages. According to Forbes, which says it viewed a presentation on the topic, "The page includes complete patient information as well as notes about patient medical issues, test results and medications, including information from scanned documents."
Google has been focused on health care for a while now, and their focus on the industry has only increased in recent years. Lately, it's been competing with similar efforts at Amazon and Apple, which are also trying to move into the lucrative health care space. Last year, Google hired a health care executive to oversee its many health initiatives. Around the same time, they announced plans to absorb AI lab DeepMind's health care division, with the goal of creating an "AI assistant for nurses and doctors."
The tech company has also been accused of inappropriate access to hundreds of thousands of health care records through the University of Chicago Medical Center. Google had partnered with the University of Chicago Medical Center in 2017 to develop machine learning tools capable of "accurately predicting medical events — such as whether patients will be hospitalized, how long they will stay, and whether their health is deteriorating despite treatment for conditions such as urinary tract infections, pneumonia, or heart failure," the company said in a blog post. The post also mentions that one of the company’s machine learning ambitions is to "anticipate the needs of the patients before they arise."
A press release issued by Ascension today, after the WSJ article was published, announced their partnership with Google and said that the goal of the partnership was to "optimize the health and wellness of individuals and communities, and deliver a comprehensive portfolio of digital capabilities." It also said that "All work related to Ascension's engagement with Google is HIPAA compliant and underpinned by a robust data security and protection effort and adherence to Ascension's strict requirements for data handling." The press release did not address the allegations at the heart of the WSJ's story, which centered on the fact that patient data was being collected and used by Google without the knowledge of patients.
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