Google gets access to masses of US healthcare data

The announcement marks another charge on the lucrative healthcare market, as the tech firm seeks to “transform” the industry.
13 November 2019

The healthcare sector is a lucrative one for cloud entrants. Source: Shutterstock

Google has made a strategic partnership to scoop up data on the health records of tens of millions of people, in what it claims is a bid to “transform the delivery of healthcare through the power of the cloud.”

The revelation, as reported first by Wall Street Journal Monday, is a result of the tech titan teaming up with Ascension— which operates 150 hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other facilities across the US— in a partnership dubbed Project Nightingale.

The initiative was first struck last year, according to WSJ, and provides Google with access to medical data including diagnoses, lab results, birth dates, patients’ names, and other health data. 

The highly-personal data has reportedly passed hands without either party notifying its owners, which span Ascension patients across 21 states. 

That’s a concern given Google’s less than flawless track record for data protection, while WSJ reported that at least 150 Google employees would have access to a large portion of the data handed over by Ascension. 

Google’s DeepMind also attracted controversy after the development of an AI-powered app which could predict kidney failure from patients’ records within a few minutes, in coordination with the Royal Free Hospital, in London, UK.

While the app— called Streams— received positive press, the UK’s Information Commissioner Office criticized the partnering hospital for the way in which it had shared patient data with DeepMind, and by proxy, Google and Alphabet.

Tariq Shaukat, President for Industry Products and Solution at Google Cloud, said that Ascension would “remain stewards” of the data, while Google would provide services on their behalf. Google also said in a blog post that patient data “cannot and will not” be combined with Google consumer data. 

The partnership, which is in compliance with the Health Insurance and Portability Act (HIPPA) which safeguards medical information, forms part of Google Cloud’s ambitions to seize on six key industries, including healthcare.  

In launching into the healthcare market, Google is looking to capitalize on the industry’s increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI). As noted by Reuters, Google Cloud is developing its AI capabilities in aims to separate its offering from rivals Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

Google didn’t mention AI in its announcement but said the two companies were looking at how to make better use of the data. 

Such applications of AI that Google has spent time developing previously include tools to automatically analyze MRI scans and other health data to identify diseases, provide diagnoses and make predictions. 

Microsoft has also made (smaller scale) in-road into the healthcare market, such as with the launch of AI-powered chatbots, called Health Bot. 

Available in the Azure marketplace, Health Bot offered a SaaS platform, integratable with Skype, Cortana, Facebook, Slack, and SMS, for care providers to provide text, voice and touch-based chat features capable of replying to questions with natural language.

AI has extensive applications across healthcare— both in alleviating administrative burdens on staff and providing groundbreaking new potential in areas such as drug discovery and diagnoses— and has attracted hundreds of millions in investment from startups in the last few years.