Is It Good that Google Is Crunching Our Healthcare Data?

Ed Tobias avatar

by Ed Tobias |

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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.”

Privacy issues

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?

Breaking news

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.

You’re invited to visit my personal blog at


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Pearl avatar


The data mining could be done if the person's info was mined using numbers for ID instead of name address and other personal identification info. It's my personal information. I did not give ANY PERMISSION for it to be divulged to a third party no matter the circumstances.

As for the ability to diagnose MS 8 months earlier, than is infinitesimal compared to the real wait people go through. Insurance is at the crux along with the international group that sets the criteria for diagnosis. Insurance wants a person to be tested for "everything" else first before it would still put road blocks in the way of the two necessary tests needed to definitively reach a diagnosis. Problem today is the average person over 25 in this country who starts to exhibit classic symptoms either can't work and is unable to afford health insurance, or is losing if not lost their job due to the symptoms interferring with their ability to work. So as a result you have a vast group that only show at ER's when the disease is out of control and far beyond easier methods of treatment. Even then ER' s will give you a pain shot and send you home telling you to see a neurologist. NOT ONE SINGLE NEUROLOGIST WILL SEE YOU IF YOU DO NOT HAVE INSURANCE. Even if you get the magical elusive diagnosis of MS, you are in for a major no holds barred fight to get Medicaid, Medicare won't kick in for 2 years. Medicaid unless you are an unrelenting pit bull and manage to find the back door into your state's governor's office with an email, you still can't see a neurologist because they don't take Medicaid. In the end of this road what good is data mining for this vast group? It does no good for them. But it does open them up to exposing their personal ID information for no good reason.

Medicare gave us new cards with a different number from our SS# because of Identity theft issues. If Medicare couldn't guarantee out ID from theft, how is allowing Google to mine our information that at hospitals include our SS# keeping it safe. Google is routinely hit with just this problem from being hacked.

Dr's could ask if the individual wants to allow their medical records to be included. Without personal identifiers, most would likely agree. It's the basis grab without permission and the inclusion of sensitive information that has no bearing on purely medical info that they say they are collecting.


M.Yokum avatar


This is a worrisome invasion of privacy no matter how it is framed by Google et al. I have not been notified that my records might be included, I have not given consent, I have no control over what is done with the information...and I feel violated, less inclined than ever to trust the medical establishment.

El Reclusa avatar

El Reclusa

Patients should, at the very least, be given an opportunity to opt in our out.
Companies shouldn't feel like they are free to just take our data without asking.

Baryy avatar


And watch as insurance companies quietly use this information to discriminate against the sick and their offspring. For the sample mix genetic information that is current with dated research regarding life and expectancy etc....

Leanne Broughton avatar

Leanne Broughton

I hope we don't lose the 'human touch' with AI. Not all outcomes are by the book, nor treatments. Sometimes we need to see out of the box, be creative. Though I do see this would be helpful for most.

WJ avatar


As has been said before: "The road to Hades is paved with good intentions." Google has said explicitly that it owes no allegiance to the United States and I would think that would include our medical records privacy as well.

Julie Farkas avatar

Julie Farkas

I just took a poll on a Facebook group I run. The question:
My Electronic Health Record is accurate and contains all pertinent information regarding my health.
Yes 10%
No 90%
Unfortunately, Artificial Intelligence starts with human information. Garbage in. Garbage out.
So, how accurate is your EHR? If not, can you get it fixed?
And, what information is Google working with? Acension is a healthcare system--that's required to use EHRs. What if the patient goes to doctors not networked with Acension? Or does Acension have data that really isn't Acension's data. I know these questions won't be answered until the last lawsuit is settled, but I say, Google, have at it and good luck.


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