Google, Ascension defend their health 'data transformation' partnership

After news broke about a health data partnership between Google and Ascension Health, sparking potential privacy concerns, the tech giant and health system released statements defending the project. 

Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported Google was collecting personal health information on millions of Americans as part of a partnership with Ascension, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the U.S.

In a blog released this week, Google said the partnership is aimed at supporting the health system "with technology that helps them to deliver better care to patients across the United States." 

"It’s understandable that people want to ask questions about our work with Ascension. We’re proud of the important work we’re doing as a cloud technology partner for healthcare companies," wrote Tariq Shaukat, president of industry products and solutions and Google Cloud, in the blog post. 

"Modernizing the healthcare industry is a critically important task, with the ultimate result, not just digital transformation, but also improving patient outcomes and saving lives," he said.

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In July, Google offered hints about the project during its second-quarter earnings call, saying “Google Cloud’s AI and ML solutions are helping healthcare organizations like Ascension improve the healthcare experience and outcomes.” But upon revealing what it dubbed "Project Nightingale" this week, Google reiterated the project shouldn't be seen as anything unusual. 

For instance, Google has a "Business Associate Agreement (BAA)" with Ascension, which governs access to protected health information for the purpose of helping providers support patient care. All of Google's work with Ascension adheres to industrywide regulations, including HIPAA, Shaukat wrote.

Ascension's data are de-identified and cannot be used for any other purpose other than providing services under that agreement, and patient data cannot be combined with Google consumer data, he said.

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For its part, Ascension released a statement saying it is working with Google to "optimize the health and wellness of individuals and communities, and deliver a comprehensive portfolio of digital capabilities."

That includes modernizing Ascension’s infrastructure by transitioning to the Google Cloud Platform, transitioning to Google's G Suite tools and exploring artificial intelligence applications that will have the potential to support improvements in clinical quality. 

“As the healthcare environment continues to rapidly evolve, we must transform to better meet the needs and expectations of those we serve as well as our own caregivers and healthcare providers. Doing that will require the programmatic integration of new care models delivered through the digital platforms, applications and services that are part of the everyday experience of those we serve,” said Eduardo Conrado, Ascension's executive vice president of strategy and innovations, in a statement.

However, tech giants have faced increasing data privacy scrutiny that has only intensified as they wade into the healthcare space. Last year, Facebook sparked alarm after CNBC reported the company asked several major U.S. hospitals to share anonymized data about patients for a research project in which it would match those data with user data to help hospitals figure out which patients might need special care.

As CNBC reported, the project never made it out of the planning stage. But it served as an example of the privacy concerns social media giants have to consider as they tiptoe into healthcare.

Google has made its interest in the health space well known. Last year, it brought on Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System CEO David Feinberg to serve in a new executive leadership role. Earlier this month, Google announced it is acquiring wearables company Fitbit for $2.1 billion.
"Our work with Ascension is exactly that—a business arrangement to help a provider with the latest technology, similar to the work we do with dozens of other healthcare providers," Shaukat said. "These organizations, like Ascension, use Google to securely manage their patient data, under strict privacy and security standards. They are the stewards of the data, and we provide services on their behalf."