Google is now the center of a federal inquiry, which is being overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights. The inquiry wants to take a closer look at the company’s new “Project Nightingale”, a joint venture with Ascension, one of the largest health systems in the country. Google created Nightingale as a way of helping Ascension organize its electronic health records while giving providers new insights into the health of their patients.
While Google Nightingale may ultimately benefit patients, Congress and HHS are growing increasingly concerned that Google may be misusing consumer health information. This is just one of the tech industry’s recent forays into healthcare, creating new concerns over patient privacy. Take a closer look at Project Nightingale and what it says about the future of healthcare.
Ascension and Google Team Up
Ascension is one of the country’s largest nonprofits and Catholic health systems. The company, which is based in St. Louis, MO, oversees around 2,600 facilities across two dozen states.
With so many patients and health records to keep track of, Ascension is using Google and Project Nightingale to integrate its separate health systems and different areas of health data into a single cloud-based interface, giving Google access to the health data of millions of Americans.
Ideally, this would make it easier for providers to access and share important health information. Primary care providers could easily exchange their findings with specialists and physical therapists and vice-versa while reducing the amount of information that gets lost in the shuffle as it moves from one department to the next.
Ascension healthcare facilities can also use this system to access healthcare information from remote locations in the event of a hostage-type emergency. Data would be accessible from any location, reducing the threat of malware and cyberattacks that can cripple some healthcare facilities.
Project Nightingale could even help providers better predict patient outcomes. Using artificial intelligence, Google plans to use its algorithms to recommend treatment methods for individual patients based on their health history and the histories of patients with similar conditions.
The Dangers of Sharing Healthcare Information with Big Tech Companies
As you can see, Project Nightingale could be a potential game-changer for the healthcare industry, streamlining the sharing of important information while reducing inefficiency and improving patient outcomes. However, Project Nightingale has its fair share of critics.
Members of Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services are sounding the alarm over big tech’s participation in healthcare. According to The Wall Street Journal, at least 150 Google employees had access to patient data through Project Nightingale. Ascension employees have expressed their own concerns over Google’s handling of patient information. Among the many concerns, Google could use this information to track and target consumers based on their health. The company could start sending ads to consumers based on their age, health status, and other personal information.
Google maintains that it’s complying with patient privacy laws as outlined by HIPAA. In an official statement to the public, Google said, this information “cannot be used for any other purpose than for providing these services we’re offering under the agreement, and patient data cannot and will not be combined with any Google consumer data.”
However, it’s important to note that this isn’t the first time Google has landed in hot water for misusing personal data. Google incurred a $170 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission for knowingly tracking and selling ads aimed at children. YouTube, which is owned by Google, can no longer collect sensitive data on content that’s made for children.
While a federal inquiry is only the first step, HHS and Congress want to make sure consumers won’t be negatively affected by Google’s Nightingale, especially if other healthcare providers start using Google’s cloud-based services. Amazon, Microsoft, Uber, and Apple have all announced plans to enter the healthcare market in one way or another, paving the way for a new era in healthcare. While there are plenty of players that support the digitization of healthcare, providers need to make sure they’re not sharing sensitive information with third parties in a way that violates patients’ right to privacy.
Expect to hear a lot more about Project Nightingale in the weeks and months to come as Congress and HHS take a closer look at Google and what it’s doing with all this patient information.