Google gains access to health data through Ascension partnership

Alphabet’s Google is working with one of the biggest U.S. healthcare providers to develop new digital tools, giving the internet giant deep access to the personal health information of millions of Americans.

The partnership with Ascension, a not-for-profit, Catholic healthcare provider with more than 150 hospitals in 20 states, is wide-ranging and includes developing new software that uses artificial intelligence to improve patient outcomes, Ascension said in a statement. The Wall Street Journal reported the partnership earlier and said the deal had originally been struck last year.

All information-sharing complies with federal privacy laws and Ascension’s strict requirements for data handling, the healthcare company said in the statement. The partnership hadn’t previously been disclosed, including to patients whose data may have been involved, the Journal reported. As part of the work, Google employees may have had access to data including hospital records and patient names, but the company declined to elaborate.

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Google and other big tech companies have been pushing into healthcare in recent years. Apple asks its Apple Watch users to opt in to studies on heart rate, while Amazon.com has bought an online pharmacy and partnered with other corporations on a health venture called Haven.

Google, for its part, has built a significant healthcare team and is experimenting with using artificial intelligence to improve healthcare.

Some industry experts voiced concern about what the partnership may mean for the privacy of the data.

“Google might have your health data, and you may not even know it,” says Nardev Ramanathan, an analyst at Lux Research. “Dubbed Project Nightingale, the deal with Ascension enables Google to gather millions of patient health records. Google has been quick to respond by saying the sharing of such highly sensitive data with tech developers is not uncommon, and it wasn't announced earlier due to the early stage of the work.

Data privacy and security concerns must remain paramount in any such partnerships, Ramanathan contends.

“While we can't speculate on the legalities, we must keep in mind that data privacy and security are mission-critical in gaining wider trust and acceptance from all health stakeholders,” he notes. “Google's insatiable ambition to gain supremacy in healthcare without paying regard to this critical factor risks jeopardizing everything it has worked for to gain momentum in this space.”

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