Google's 'Project Nightingale' is secretly collecting data on millions of Ascension patients: WSJ

Employees at St. Louis-based Ascension have raised concerns about the ways Google is collecting and analyzing the personal health information of millions of the health system's patients, people familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal.

Google partnered with Ascension last year to conduct its "Project Nightingale," which entails gathering patient information to create healthcare solutions. Over the summer, Google began collecting more data from Ascension, documents given to WSJ show.

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. At least 150 Google employees have access to data on tens of millions of patients, a person familiar with the matter told WSJ, which was confirmed with internal documents.

Ascension physicians and patients across 21 states have not been informed about the data sharing.

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."

Google is using patients' data to design software that leverages artificial technology and machine learning to make suggestions in patients' treatment plans.

In statements, Google and Ascension said "Project Nightingale" is compliant with federal health laws and has robust protections for patient information. 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.

"As the healthcare environment continues to rapidly evolve, we must transform to better meet the needs and expectations of those we serve as well as our own caregivers and healthcare providers. Doing that will require the programmatic integration of new care models delivered through the digital platforms, applications and services that are part of the everyday experience of those we serve," said Eduardo Conrado, executive vice president of strategy and innovations at Ascension.

Google's cloud division is spearheading the project. The tech giant has assigned dozens of engineers to support the project. In the end, Google aims to create a search tool that would aggregate patient data into a central location, documents show, according to WSJ.

Editor's note: 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.

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