Google's Feinberg launches defense of Ascension data deal

David Feinberg, M.D., head of Google Health, took to the web on Tuesday to directly address growing controversy swirling around the tech giant's data deal with Ascension.

"The technology is mind-blowing. But if we don’t have the trust of the doctor, the nurse, the mom, the dad, the elderly person, the patient, it doesn’t matter how good the technology is, we’re not going to mess with this," said Feinberg, formerly CEO of Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System, in a video. "We’re going to do it the absolute best way possible. We’re going to treat it with the respect that it deserves."

Google and Ascension are both facing significant blowback, including scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers, following news last week, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, that Google was collecting personal health information on millions of Americans as part of a partnership with Ascension,

In the blog post and video, Feinberg, a well-respected physician and healthcare executive, acknowledged that health is personal and health information should be private. He sought to clarify how the tech giant is using Ascension's data to build "an intelligent suite of tools for clinicians, including a tool that aims to make health records more useful, more accessible and more searchable by pulling them into a single, easy-to-use interface for doctors."

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Google wants to take its two decades of experiencing building products like Google Search, Translate and Gmail, and adapt that technology to help clinicians find information more efficiently, he said.

"We wanted to take the functionality that we know from organizing information and put it on top of your record so when your doctor is looking or something, did you have an MRI, how did you have a response to that medication before, we will pull up all the information form your record so your doctor can spend more time with you, looking at you, instead of looking in the computer," he said in a video.

Feinberg reiterated that 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, Google said.

Members of the Google team might come into contact with identifiable patient data, Feinberg acknowledged, and the company has strict controls for the limited Google employees who handle such data.

Google develops and tests its system on synthetic data and openly available datasets. A "limited number" of screened and qualified Google staff may be exposed to real data, Feinberg said in the blog post.

RELATED: Experts: Transparency key to avoid controversy generated by Google-Ascension data deal

"These staff undergo HIPAA and medical ethics training, and are individually and explicitly approved by Ascension for a limited time," he said.

The company has set up technical controls to ensure access to patient data is monitored and auditable. Google also participates in external certifications, like ISO 27001, where independent third-party auditors come and check our processes, including information security controls for these tools, he said.

The project

In a separate video, Alvin Rajkomar, M.D, product manager at Google and a practicing internal medicine physician, offered a glimpse at the health record tools the tech giant has been working on.

"We want to empower clinicians to make it easier to access complex, clinical data with tools that are delightful to use," he said, noting that healthcare data is siloed and the tools for frontline clinicians are clerical and suboptimal for decision making.

RELATED: David Feinberg offers a peek behind the curtain at Google Health

Rajkomar demonstrated a new Google tool that is currently in pilot phase using synthetic patient data. Using Google technologies, the tool is designed to reduce clicks when looking at a patient's record and enables clinicians to access a unified view of data normally spread across multiple systems, including vitals, medications, labs and notes. 

Doctors can query the entire chart using their own words, including typos, as the results are not strict keyword matches, Rajkomar said. The tool understands common clinical shorthand—typing abx for antibiotics, for example—and can identify related concepts. The tool's features include the use of smart compose technology to complete common clinical phrases and automatically detects and highlights text that has been copied and pasted from prior notes.

"My favorite feature is that you will be able to search for information in scanned documents. And faxes, even handwritten, we’ll still find the information for you," he said.

Google's goal with the project is to build modern tools for clinicians so they can easily and quickly find the information they need to care for patients, he said.