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Report: Google collecting personal health information from millions of patients without their knowledge


The search giant’s secretive Project Nightingale gathering millions of health records from Ascension hospitals.

Google has been collecting the health information of millions of Americans without their knowledge through a partnership with Ascension hospitals in 21 states, according to a November 11 story from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

The program, called Project Nightingale, was started last year in partnership with the Catholic chain of 2,600 hospitals and doctor’s offices, but the WSJ reports that the data sharing between the companies started ramping up over the summer.

While neither physicians nor their patients have been notified about the project, “complete health histories” including lab results, diagnoses, and hospitalization records have already been made accessible to at least 150 Google employees, the story says. Access was also granted to staffers with Google Brain which is one of the company’s research science divisions, according to the report.

After the WSJ published its story on the project, Google and Ascension issued a news release saying their project complies with federal health law and includes protections for patients’ data.

The search engine giant is using the massive trove of data to design software that uses advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning to focus on individual patients and suggest changes to their care, the WSJ reports.

While the program has raised concerns among Ascension staff over HIPAA privacy regulations, the story cites unnamed privacy experts who say it appears to be allowed under federal law as long as the information is used “only to help the covered entity carry out its healthcare functions;” as the law says.

Google isn’t the only tech company with its eyes on the healthcare market, as the story reports. Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are all striving for a share of the market, though they’ve not made any deals of a similar size.

Google plans to use the framework developed by dozens of staffers assigned to the project to sell similar products to other healthcare systems, and to create an “omnibus search tool” to aggregate all of the records and host them in one place, the report says.

Ascension wants to improve patient outcomes with a faster EHR, while also mining the data to identify additional tests patients may need and other ways to boost revenue from patients, according to the story.

Google’s collection and use of personal information, and lack of transparency about data breaches, have drawn the scrutiny of regulators in recent years.

Google is increasing its presence in the health sphere. It recently announced the $2.1 billion purchase of Fitbit, maker of wearable fitness tracking products. 

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Jennifer N. Lee, MD, FAAFP
© National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
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© National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
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© National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health