Project Nightingale: Google and health data (part 1)

Alphabet, Google's holding company, is about to acquire Fitbit, a manufacturer of physical activity detectors, in a $2.1 billion deal. It is also working with a number of healthcare facilities that will give it access to thousands of medical records. And it´s all legal.

Technological giants are voraciously storing health data

It's no secret that Google, along with the other technology giants Apple and Facebook, is on the hunt for health data. Alphabet, Google's holding company, is about to acquire Fitbit, a manufacturer of physical activity detectors, in a $2.1 billion deal. It is also working with a number of healthcare facilities that will give it access to thousands of medical records. And it´s all legal.

The recent agreement between Google and Ascension, a major health services organization that runs 2,600 hospitals mainly in the Midwest and South of the United States, is another sign of how the digital revolution is transforming health care. We are at the dawn of a new era in which physicians will access, almost instantly, the knowledge derived from an infinite number of cases, data, experiments, and studies, and apply it to the care of every single patient.

The agreement, with which Ascension will send the clinical data of its 50 million patients to Google's cloud for Google to process in order to help Ascension better manage its patients and finances, is the target of much criticism.  The announcement has raised concerns about patient privacy and the possible misuse of health data by third parties. The agreement triggered an investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and requests for further investigation by members of the US Congress.

Patients have an undeniable right to privacy and control over their personal health data. Physicians and hospitals need leeway to use patient information to refine their care. Patients, health professionals, and society at large have an interest in the growth of clinical and scientific knowledge derived from collective experience. And technology entrepreneurs want economic return when they add value to health data management. The debate, which promises to be long and controversial, will focus on how to manage these sometimes conflicting interests, as health information technology revolutionizes our health care systems.

The advent of information technology in health data management allows information to move instantly from one end of the world to the other, where it is needed and useful. This has several immediate benefits for patients. One is that their personal medical histories are always accessible. Another is that physicians and nurses can potentially learn from the experience of all patients with similar conditions. And by applying research technologies and artificial intelligence, physicians may be able to mobilize information from all scientific literature in real-time.

The innovative use of clinical data in electronic format requires a range of computer, analytical and research skills that most healthcare systems lack. A logical approach for healthcare organizations such as Ascension is to collaborate with third parties who have the necessary capabilities to process, store and provide this data. This is where Google comes in. It has skills that Ascension can never hope to match.

But Google is not alone. IBM Watson has worked in this field for some time. Amazon and Apple seem to follow suit. And there's a stream of start-ups looking for opportunities to add value to healthcare using patient data.

At the moment it seems that Google is doing the work for free with the idea of testing a platform that can be sold to other healthcare providers. In addition to the Cloud team, Google employees with access to healthcare data include the Google Brain team, which focuses on artificial intelligence.

Access part 2 of this article here.

Sources: 
Barber G, Molteni M. Google Is Slurping Up Health Data-and It Looks Totally Legal. Wired. 11/11/2019 Blumenthal D. Why Google's Move into Patient Information Is a Big Deal. Harvard Business Review. November 2019

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