Google to analyze 32 million patient records through new partnership
29th May 2021

Doctor Google will see you now! Privacy fears as tech giant ‘strikes deal’ with hospital chain to use 32 MILLION patient records to create algorithms that will guide healthcare workers’ decisions

  • HCA Heathcare announced the partnership with Google Cloud on Wednesday
  • Company operates 186 hospitals and approximately 2,000 sites of care in the US
  • Will use Google technology to develop new healthcare algorithms for doctors
  • HCA says names will be removed from the records and deal follows privacy laws 

Google has struck a deal with a massive hospital chain to help analyze some 32 million patient records, and hopes to develop new healthcare algorithms that could guide doctors’ decisions.

HCA Healthcare, the hospital chain based in Nashville, Tennessee, on Wednesday announced the deal to consolidate and store data from its digital health records and medical devices with Google Cloud.

Using anonymized records stripped of personally identifying information, HCA plans to use Google’s AI technology to develop algorithms that could advise doctors on the best treatment options for patients. 

HCA, which owns and operates 186 hospitals and some 2,000 care sites including clinics, says it will utilize Google’s ‘planetary-scale database’ to analyze data from its 32 million annual records of patient visits.

Many details of the deal remain unclear, including the financial side and whether the algorithms that HCA develops to improve treatment will be proprietary to the hospital system, or shared with Google. 

The partnership marks Google’s latest foray into the healthcare realm – and it is already raising privacy concerns.

Google is partnering with HCA Healthcare, which owns 186 hospitals across the country including Good Samaritan in San Jose, California, in a deal to analyze medical records

Writing for The Federalist, Jordan Davidson called the new partnership a ‘privacy invasion’ and ‘technology power grab.’

Google and HCA both insist that patient data will be tightly controlled, and that Google will not have access to any patient-identifiable data.

What are the HIPAA rules for privacy? 

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is a federal law that required the creation of national standards to protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient’s consent or knowledge.

Healthcare providers, insurance companies, and their business associates are all bound by HIPAA rules.

Protected health information can only be disclosed:

  • To patients themselves
  • For treatment, payment or healthcare operations
  • With permission from the patient or in their best interest, such as notifying family members when a patient is incapacitated
  • In the public interest for 12 national priority purposes 

But that didn’t stop critics from expressing concern, with one Twitter user sharing fears that Google’s advanced AI algorithms would be able to identify even anonymized records. 

Medical records are protected under federal privacy laws, but the rules allow hospitals and other healthcare providers to share patient information with contractors, as long as they abide by the same privacy protections.

HCA says that patient records will be stripped of personally identifying information before being shared with Google data scientists, and that the hospital system would control access to the data, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the partnership. 

‘Privacy and security will be guiding principles throughout this partnership,’ HCA said in a statement. ‘The access and use of patient data will be addressed through the implementation of Google Cloud’s infrastructure along with HCA Healthcare’s layers of security controls and processes.’

HCA hopes to use Google’s algorithms to provide real-time input on treatment options for doctors and improve patient outcomes.

The hospital system points to early success using its own technology to monitor critically ill COVID-19 patients, and notify doctors of potentially better treatment options.

‘Next-generation care demands data science-informed decision support so we can more sharply focus on safe, efficient and effective patient care,’ said HCA CEO Sam Hazen in a statement. 

The partnership marks Google’s latest foray into the healthcare realm — and it is already raising privacy concerns

‘We view partnerships with leading organizations, like Google Cloud, that share our passion for innovation and continual improvement as foundational to our efforts,’ added Hazen.

HCA says the partnership will also focus on streamlining non-clinical support areas that may benefit from improved workflows through better use of data and insights, such as supply chain, human resources and physical plant operations. 

It is not Google’s first foray into the healthcare realm, and the company’s prior partnerships on healthcare records have drawn criticism before.

In 2019, a whistleblower leaked details of Project Nightingale, Google’s partnership with Ascension, the St. Louis-based healthcare company that helped Google collect personal health-related information of millions of Americans across 21 states. 

‘Two simple questions kept hounding me: did patients know about the transfer of their data to the tech giant? Should they be informed and given a chance to opt in or out?’ the whistleblower wrote in an essay for the Guardian.

‘The answer to the first question quickly became apparent: no. The answer to the second I became increasingly convinced about: yes. Put the two together, and how could I say nothing?’ the person continued.

The person said that about 150 Google employees and 100 Ascension staff collaborated on Project Nightingale, transferring the personal data of more than 50 million Americans to Google.

The data involved in Project Nightingale 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. 

In that project, Google hoped to use artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to predict patterns of illness in ways that might some day lead to new treatments, according to the whistleblower.

Ascension issued a press release acknowledging its partnership with Google after the Wall Street Journal blew the lid off the project.

The statement said that the project would help Ascension ‘improve the experience of patients and consumers, as well as providers and associates, and advance its Mission of providing compassionate, personalized care to all, especially people living in poverty and those most vulnerable.’ 

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