Is It Good that Google Is Crunching Our Healthcare Data?
Google has quietly teamed up with Ascension, one of the largest healthcare organizations in the United States, to process the medical records of millions of people. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Project Nightingale” involves all sorts of information about things like lab results, diagnoses, and hospitalization records, and includes patients’ names and birthdates. Ascension runs more than 2,600 hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other healthcare facilities in 21 states, so that’s a ton of data being funneled to Google.
Artificial intelligence in the exam room
What will Google do with this medical information? The Journal article explained that the company will crunch patients’ test results plus information about allergies, medications, immunizations, and other data, and use artificial intelligence to:
- Suggest treatment plans or tests;
- Flag unusual deviations in care;
- Suggest changes to a patient’s care team;
- Review implementation of narcotics policies;
- Recommend additional billing for procedures.
After the Journal published its story, Ascension issued a press release. In it, the organization said that its collaboration with Google will improve the experience of patients and doctors by “streamlining consumers’ engagement with healthcare and empowering them to be proactively engaged in maintaining their health.” It further claimed that the project is aimed at “improving the caregiver experience with technology and arming caregivers with insights that allow them to better predict and manage patient needs.”
According to a source quoted by the Journal, “Neither [Ascension’s] patients nor doctors have been notified. [But] at least 150 Google employees already have access to much of the data on tens of millions of patients … “
Privacy experts say this kind of data sharing appears to be permitted under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996, according to the Journal. The HIPAA law “generally allows hospitals to share data with business partners without telling patients, as long as the information is used ‘only to help the covered entity carry out its health care functions.’”
Some serious privacy issues arise here, but Ascension’s press release offers the assurance 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.”
Is data-crunching healthcare’s future?
The Journal reports that Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are also “aggressively” moving into the healthcare-data field. A company named iQuity is developing a method that uses artificial intelligence to predict the onset of some diseases, including multiple sclerosis. The results of its pilot study, published in 2018, found that its approach had more than 90 percent accuracy in predicting the onset of MS at least eight months before traditional methods would typically reach a diagnosis.
The marriage of artificial intelligence and health care is on the minds of many. Forbes has published a good overview of where some experts think things are heading. One predicts that “AI will facilitate turning this mountain of data into actionable health-related insights, promoting personalized health and optimizing care.” Another said, “Ultimately, AI and data analytics could prove to be the catalyst in addressing some of today’s most difficult-to-treat health conditions. … health care providers can harness the power of precision medicine to determine the most effective approaches for specific patients.”
Good or bad?
It seems to me that this is a double-edged sword. I just leased a new car that has all sorts of “safety” devices that use technology to park, help me brake in an emergency, and even maintain a specific distance behind the car I’m following. These features make driving more comfortable, but I’m unsure if I trust them entirely.
I have a similar feeling about mining healthcare data and using artificial intelligence to make treatment decisions. The approach may well optimize my care, but it will require total transparency as well as buy-in from healthcare providers I trust before I’ll be comfortable with it. What do you think?
After I finished writing this column, The Wall Street Journal added to its story, reporting that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is opening an investigation into Google’s “Project Nightingale.” In a statement to the paper, Roger Severino, director of HHS’ Office for Civil Rights, said it “will seek to learn more information about this mass collection of individuals’ medical records to ensure that HIPAA protections were fully implemented.” So stay tuned.
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