Dr. David Feinberg responds to criticism of Ascension, Google project

The head of Google Health, David Feinberg, MD, has responded with more clarity on what the tech giant and St. Louis-based Ascension are doing with Project Nightingale in a Nov. 20 blog post.

"There as been a lot of interest around our collaboration with Ascension," Dr. Feinberg said. "As a physician, I understand. Health is incredibly personal, and your health information should be private to you and the people providing your care."

With data from Ascension, Google plans to build an intelligence suite of tools to help clinicians take better care of patients. Google is using patients' data to design software that leverages artificial technology and machine learning to make suggestions in patients' treatment plans.

In further detail, Ascension said the partnership with Google aims to modernize the health system's infrastructure, improve communication and collaboration and explore artificial learning to boost clinical quality. Specifically, the health system hopes to mine patient data to then identify tests that could be necessary. Ascension is also looking to improve its EHR system.

However, has been criticized for secretly collecting data on millions of patients. Although Ascension employees have questioned the ethical and technological ways Google is gathering data, privacy experts said it appears to be acceptable under federal law.

"As we noted in an earlier post, our work adheres to strict regulations on handling patient data, and our Business Associate Agreement with Ascension ensures their patient data cannot be used for any other purpose than for providing our services — this means it's never used for advertising. We've also published a white paper around how customer data is encrypted and isolated in the cloud," Dr. Feinberg said.

Google has developed and tested its system with fake data. Additionally, only a limited number of screened and qualified Google staff members may have access to patient data. Technical controls have also been put in place to keep patient data safe, Dr. Feinberg said.

Before joining Google Health, Dr. Feinberg served as the CEO of Danville, Pa.-based Geisinger and CEO of UCLA Health. 

To read Dr. Feinberg's full statement, click here.

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