Should Dr. Google Help Guide Your Treatment?

Ed Tobias avatar

by Ed Tobias |

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Paging Dr. Google.

OK, maybe I’m being overly dramatic, but The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Google and HCA Healthcare have struck a deal to share data and create healthcare algorithms. HCA plans to use the data system to improve operating efficiency, monitor patients, and even guide some decisions by doctors. So, the concept of a “Dr. Google” isn’t far-fetched.

HCA Healthcare has clinics at 2,000 locations in 21 states. The Google-HCA deal will use data from 32 million patient visits each year to develop the algorithms, the Journal reported. In addition to providing Google with access to digital health records, the agreement also would link medical devices, such as ventilators, to monitoring devices via Google Cloud.

“We want to push the boundaries of what the clinician can do in real time with data,” Chris Sakalosky, managing director of healthcare and life sciences at Google Cloud, told the newspaper.

HCA Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Perlin compared this type of monitoring to building “a central nervous system to help interpret the various signals.” HCA had used data monitoring on a smaller scale during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. A system developed by the company alerted medical staff when a COVID-19 patient failed to receive ventilator treatment that the system determined could be of benefit to them. 

Google has been down this road before

This isn’t the first time that Google has dipped into the healthcare data waters. About a year and a half ago, it announced “Project Nightingale,” an agreement with Ascension, the second-largest health system in the country, to process the medical records of millions of Ascension’s patients. The Nightingale system suggests tests and treatment plans, alerts doctors to deviations in care, and even suggests changes to a patient’s care team.

Risky business

Predictably, privacy concerns were raised about this sort of healthcare data-sharing after “Project Nightingale” was revealed by a whistleblower at Google in late 2019. I suspect privacy concerns also will be raised by Google’s new deal with HCA Healthcare. And no wonder.

According to the HIPAA Journal, an online resource covering compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, last April there were 62 healthcare data breaches in the U.S. that exposed or compromised nearly 2.6 million records. That was slightly below the 12-month average of nearly 2.9 million breached records. 

Let’s be careful out there

It seems to me that healthcare organizations ought to do a really intensive risk-benefit analysis before undertaking this sort of project, just as doctors and patients should do when deciding on a disease-modifying therapy. Do the benefits to organizational efficiency and patient care outweigh the risk to our privacy? Will insurance companies wind up with access to these data? How about wearable medical tracking devices?

Equally concerning to me, will security protocols be sufficient to prevent hacks like the ransomware attack that recently forced the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline in early May? Or the hack that forced the world’s largest meat processor to shut down its plants last Tuesday? Or the one that paralyzed hospitals in Ireland for a week?

Let’s give things a really hard look before we travel much further down this data-mining minefield.

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, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Charles Lumia avatar

Charles Lumia

You're right on. Better to be cautious.

Levine, Alex avatar

Levine, Alex

Important note


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