Google and Ascension: big win or big worry for patients?

Simone Edelmann, PhD

Editor at HealthcareTransformers.com

Google and Ascension: big win or big worry for patients?

6 December 2019

Quick Takes

  • Gaining valuable and actionable insights that can be used to improve healthcare delivery, services and products for patients requires the use of patient data

  • The recent announcement of a partnership between the US health system, Ascension, and Google that resulted in the transfer of 50 million patient records has brought the essential debate regarding health data privacy and ownership into the spotlight

  • As we move into the age of digital healthcare, building trust and transparency around the use of patient data is imperative to secure access and explore the untapped potential it holds

As first reported on November 11, tech behemoth Google and American healthcare giant Ascension have been partnering since 2018 on what is called “Project Nightingale.”1 Ascension operates one of the largest healthcare systems in the US, including 150 hospitals and more than 50 senior living facilities.2 

The Google-Ascension partnership should be intriguing to every leader in the healthcare arena for two very different reasons.

Reason 1 – The power of technology partnerships

It is very clear that data is critical for the future of healthcare – and this partnership creates access to a great deal of very valuable data.

Before the digital age, physicians kept patients’ personal health data safely stowed away in a file, and that information was mainly used for individual treatment. Today, personal health data can easily be gathered electronically, so vast amounts of data can be collected, stored and analyzed. Using Big Data techniques, meaningful insights gathered can help drive advances in the research and development of new medicines, improve and speed up diagnoses, advance personalized care, and streamline healthcare services, among other benefits.3 

What is unique about this agreement is its scale. Ascension will send to the Google cloud the clinical data it collects on its 50 million patients, and Google will process that data to help Ascension better manage its operations and patients.4  Thanks to Google’s massive cloud computing power, millions of electronic health records will potentially be more accessible to Ascension’s network of healthcare providers. 

The potential benefits are many. Google gains access to the medical records of more than 50 million people – and it has the computing power and tools to fully utilize it. For example, a physician could leverage the experience from the entirety of Ascension’s patients with similar conditions to help drive care for any individual patient. By applying search technologies and artificial intelligence, Ascension may also be able, in real time, to mobilize lessons from their entire patient database to deliver more advanced and individualized patient care.

For perhaps the first time, by combining a large amount of real world health data with massive computing power, we will be able to see a more complete picture of a disease and monitor the impact of care. 

Reason 2 – Responsible use of patient data

Google and Ascension: big win or big worry for patients?

With every revolution, however, comes an inevitable backlash. Since it became public, the agreement between Google and Ascension has been met with criticism, which mostly stems from the level of transparency about the use of patient data.5, 6 

According to Google, the agreement is not unlike others it has in place to support healthcare customers.4 In essence, these customers use Google to securely manage their patient data, under strict privacy and security standards, and Google provides technology services to them. That seems fairly straightforward. 

In this case, it seems that it is the scale of the agreement that has driven the criticism – the Google-Ascension deal will potentially expose the personal health information of tens of millions of Ascension patients to Google employees.

Some are questioning Google’s motives for the deal.7, 8 The company now has access to one of the largest medical databases in the world. What if Google is able to commercialize a new product using the data from Ascension’s 50 million patients as a backbone, without ever getting their explicit consent to do so? Is this legal? And if legal, is it ethical? 

Today, many people are legitimately concerned about the increasing availability and use of their personal health data. While there are many advantages of Big Data in daily life – think about the ever-better internet search engines – there are many ongoing concerns about data privacy and the potential misuse of personal data to discriminate. This is especially true with regard personal health data, mainly fueled by the fear of illegitimate secondary use which might lead to discrimination based upon a person’s health status.9

It is critical to remember that the data Ascension collects from its own patients are done with full transparency – patients know they are giving this information; it is not collected in the background. However, the question is – who owns this data? And who can authorize access to it? 

Takeaway: Building trust is essential

Google and Ascension: big win or big worry for patients?

Healthcare companies need to rely on the full potential of big data to advance their understanding of diseases and how to treat them. Because this data is extremely valuable, it is incumbent on industry to convince patients and caregivers to share their data with them. This can only be done through transparency about the goals for which patient data is collected and used, and by ensuring data privacy and security. 

  • It is critical that personal health data are not used in an illegitimate way.14

  • Patients should benefit. Organizations must prove through their actions that their products and solutions will have a positive impact on patient outcomes. This will allow organizations to build the trust needed with physicians and patients to secure the access they need.15

  • Strong measures must be taken to protect individual data. Thanks to secure procedures, it is possible to harvest data in a responsible manner that allows individuals to contribute their data for healthcare progress without jeopardizing their privacy. Strong security measures therefore also strengthen trust, allowing the industry to work to reinvent medicine for more effective healthcare.15 

There is a fine line that needs to be walked. Big data can be an invaluable tool that may eventually transform the way healthcare is created, studied, delivered and paid for. At the same time, individual patients rightfully and legitimately believe that their health data is theirs, and theirs alone, to decide how and when it is used. The goal is to strike the right balance between privacy rights and greater societal interest.

Trust is the key element, and that can only be created on a basis of transparency – both within an organization and external to the organization. In order to be transparent with patients about how their data is being used, leaders need to create a culture of transparency within their organizations.10  Only an organization that fundamentally believes that disclosure and openness are critical can be properly equipped to answer the privacy demands of patients. 

The healthcare industry has traditionally depended on data collected voluntarily from both patients and healthy individuals to create products that improve their lives, so they are acutely aware of this sensitivity. The question becomes more important as we move into the digital age – and the answer will determine future success. 

Simone Edelmann, PhD is an editor and contributor at HealthcareTransformers.com. After completing her PhD from the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, she found her passion in medical and scientific communications. She is dedicated to delivering high-quality content on the topic of the future of healthcare to our readers.

References

  1. Copeland. (2019) Wall Street Journal. Article available from https://www.wsj.com/articles/google-s-secret-project-nightingale-gathers-personal-health-data-on-millions-of-americans-11573496790 [Accessed November 2019]
  2. Ascension. Company webpage available from https://ascension.org/about [Accessed November 2019]
  3. Edelmann. (2019) Healthcare Transformers. Article available from https://healthcaretransformers.com/7-ways-digitization-will-shape-the-future-of-healthcare/ [Accessed November 2019]
  4. Shaukat. (2019) Google. Blog available from https://cloud.google.com/blog/topics/inside-google-cloud/our-partnership-with-ascension [Accessed November 2019]
  5. Marks. (2019) Slate. Article available from https://slate.com/technology/2019/11/google-ascension-project-nightingale-emergent-medical-data.html [Accessed November 2019]
  6. Brodkin. (2019) Ars Technica. Article available from https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/11/google-you-can-trust-us-with-the-medical-data-you-didnt-know-we-already-had/ [Accessed November 2019]
  7. Blumenthal. (2019). Harvard Business Review. Article available from https://hbr.org/2019/11/why-googles-move-into-patient-information-is-a-big-deal [Accessed November 2019]
  8. Rachel Bovard. (2019) Washington Examiner. Article available from https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/google-might-have-your-healthcare-records-even-if-you-and-your-doctor-didnt-consent [Accessed November 2019]
  9. Favaretto et al. (2019) Journal of Big Data volume 6, Article number: 12
  10. Kaplan. (2018) Harvard Business Review. Article available from https://hbr.org/2018/11/building-a-culture-of-transparency-in-health-care [Accessed November 2019]