Robert Wachter, a former member of Google's healthcare advisory board, remembers when the company first set its sights on the healthcare industry more than a decade ago. "They said: We're Google, we'll solve it," says Wachter, head of medicine at University of California, San Francisco. At the time, Google was trying to create individual accounts where users could store their electronic medical records. So when then-chief executive Eric Schmidt later abandoned the effort with an admission that Google had underestimated the challenge, it came as a shock. "They conquer industry after industry, it doesn't seem like this would be very different," Wachter says.
The news that Ascension and Google are working together on a system using machine learning, called Project Nightingale, at first seems like a step forward toward better patient care. Because it's challenging for any healthcare provider to exchange information about patients and patient care, it only makes sense that the healthcare industry would look for technology solutions that could solve some of these obstacles. The design of a new software system that could suggest changes in care and make medical records easily accessible to any doctor treating a single patient would help alleviate many of the challenges our healthcare system faces today. However, it's important that these two entities move through the process with great care and consideration. Google is no stranger to controversy regarding data privacy, machine learning and ethics.
Spending for consumer digital healthcare companies is set to explode in the next few years; the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology is currently reviewing the requirements for data sharing with the Department of Health and Human Services, and their initiatives will unlock a wave of data access never before seen in the U.S. healthcare system. Already, startups and large technology companies are jockeying for position over how to leverage this access and take advantage of new sensor technologies that provide unprecedented windows into patient health. Venture capital investors are expected to invest roughly $50 billion in approximately 4,500 startups in the healthcare industry, according to data from CB Insights. In all, there have been 3,409 investments made in the healthcare market through the third quarter of 2019, with 31% of those deals done in what CB Insights identifies as digital health companies. The explosion of data is unprecedented and already companies like Apple and Google are jockeying for control over how that data will be served up to healthcare practitioners and patients.
Google has started removing private medical records from its search results, after adjusting its policy regarding personal information. The change was made on Thursday to include the "confidential, personal medical records of private people" in the bracket of information Google may remove unprompted from search results. Other examples of such information include national or government issued identification numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers and images of signatures. The leaking of private medical records can be extremely damaging to the victims, both financially and emotionally, with future prospects affected and private lives of the vulnerable exposed. Given that Google's indexing system will capture anything that's publicly accessible on the internet, leaks such as those created by an Indian pathology lab which uploaded more than 43,000 patient records in December, including names and HIV blood test results, can be particularly damaging.
Google secretly gathered millions of patient records across 21 states on behalf of a health care provider, in an effort dubbed "Project Nightingale," reports The Wall Street Journal. Neither the provider's doctors nor patients were made aware of the effort, according to the report. The Wall Street Journal's Rob Copeland wrote that the data amassed in the program includes "lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, complete with patient names and dates of birth," and that as many as 150 Google employees may have had access to the data. The New York Times corroborated much of the report later in the day, writing that "dozens of Google employees" may have access to sensitive patient data, and that there are concerns that some Google employees may have downloaded some of that data. But Google tells The Verge that despite the surprise, it's standard industry practice for a health care provider to share highly sensitive health records with tech workers under an agreement like the kind it signed -- one that narrowly allows Google to build tools for that health care provider by using the private medical data of its patients, and one that doesn't require patients to be notified, the company claims.