Federal investigators probe Ascension, Google project

The Office of Civil Rights of HHS is asking for more information about Google's "Project Nightingale" with St. Louis-based Ascension, according to a Nov. 12 The Wall Street Journal report.

Investigators "will seek to learn more information about this mass collection of individuals' medical records to ensure that HIPAA protections were fully implemented," OCR Director Roger Severino told WSJ.

Ascension and Google partnered last year to gather and share patient information to create healthcare solutions. Physicians and patients from 21 Ascension locations were not informed that information was being shared with Google. It is estimated that Google will gather data on 50 million patients.

Patient data that is being secretly shared with Google includes lab results, diagnoses and hospitalization records, reports WSJ. In some instances, Google has access to patients' complete health history, including names and dates of birth. 

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. Hospitals are generally allowed to share data with business partners without informing patients if the information is used "only to help the covered entity carry out its healthcare functions."

An Ascension spokesperson said patient data wouldn’t be used to sell ads, reports WSJ.

"We are happy to cooperate with any questions about the project. We believe Google's work with Ascension adheres to industry-wide regulations (including HIPAA) regarding patient data, and comes with strict guidance on data privacy, security and usage," a spokesperson for Google said in a statement to WSJ.

Legislators on Nov. 12 also commented on the project. Presidential hopeful Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said that there needs to be government oversight for the amount of data Google is handling, adding there are "very few rules of the road in place regulating how it is collected and used."

Google has mapped out plans to develop a search tool that would aggregate patient data into a central location. Ascension physicians would then be able to use the tool to more quickly access patient information.

Ascension leader Eduardo Conrado, executive vice president of strategy and innovations for Ascension, shared his reactions to the WSJ Nov. 11 report on Project Nightingale on Nov. 12. Find his commentary here.

Editor's note: Becker's has reached out to Ascension for comment and will update this story accordingly.

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