Google denies it’s misusing health data as HHS starts inquiry

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Google’s top health and cloud executives said the company isn’t misusing health data from one of the biggest U.S. healthcare providers, pushing back against news reports that have triggered criticism from lawmakers and prompted a federal inquiry.

Google employees only have access to patient information to build a new internal search tool for the Ascension hospital network, said David Feinberg, head of Google Health. No patient data is being used for Google’s artificial intelligence research, he added.

The Alphabet company’s contract is governed by U.S. health privacy law that permits it access to patient records solely for the task of organizing Ascension’s various health records systems and building a tool to make them easier to search, Feinberg said.

“That’s all we’re allowed to do and that’s all we are doing,” he said.

Google’s deal with Ascension has been under scrutiny since the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that the company was collecting identifiable data on millions of Ascension patients and using it to build new products. On Tuesday, the paper reported that the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights was starting an inquiry into the situation.

The OCR “would like to learn more information about this mass collection of individuals’ medical records with respect to the implications for patient privacy under HIPAA,” says Roger Severino, director of the office, in a statement Wednesday. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is the law that governs confidentiality and information sharing in healthcare and insurance, among other rules.

Thomas Kurian, chief executive officer of Google Cloud, declined to comment on the inquiry.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Google’s activity was a “blatant disregard for privacy” and “beyond shameful.” News articles and social media posts have questioned why Google needs to collect patient information and speculated that the search giant could eventually use the data for advertising. That isn’t true, Kurian and Feinberg said in a joint interview.

When Google does work with other companies on artificial intelligence research, it always strips out personally identifying information, Kurian says.

“We never actually have Google employees understand individual patients’ data when it goes into the model. We have other technologies that de-identify it,” he contends.

Feinberg says his team is tapping Google’s expertise in search technology to build a tool that can scan through Ascension’s multiple electronic health record systems and make it easier for doctors and nurses to find the exact data they need, when they need it. The project is still in its infancy, but could eventually become a standalone product that Google could sell to other healthcare providers and entities, Feinberg says.

“If we can help solve the information overload and the pressures on doctors and nurses, then there would be a huge benefit to a lot of people in those types of tools,” he adds. “To me, that is actually really, really exciting.”

Ascension’s health data is being stored on Google Cloud servers but sequestered so only Ascension employees can access it, according to Google.

“All data is logically siloed to Ascension and housed within a virtual private space encrypted with dedicated keys,” Kurian says. “Google does not sell, share or otherwise combine data from Ascension with any other data.”

Bloomberg News