Google, Ascension Data Project Concerns Privacy Advocates

November 15, 2019

Google’s partnership with hospital system Ascension to store health records has sparked a federal probe.

Google’s partnership with hospital system Ascension to store health records has sparked a federal probe.

Google and Ascension, located in St. Louis, entered into a business arrangement called “Project Nightingale,” where Ascension stores millions of patient records on Google’s Cloud Platform, according to Max Pruger, general manager of compliance at Kaseya, a global company that provides IT management software solutions for organizations and managed services providers, headquartered in Dublin, Ireland.

“Google in turn will not only provide cloud storage but also develop software that allows medical providers to query the patient records and generate reports based on the information,” Pruger says. “While this move is technically legal, the lack of transparency and failure to disclose the information in a timely manner, coupled with Google’s business model of monetizing consumer data, has privacy advocates concerned.”

This news should serve as a reminder to healthcare executives that it is indeed the patient’s information, according to Ray D’Onofrio, principal data architect at SPR, a digital tech consultancy in Chicago.

“How data is secured or managed can be challenging, but one of the most basic tenets of healthcare data is that it is entirely up to the patient to decide who they give access to, not the healthcare system,” D’Onofrio says. “The use of patient data is a struggle of extremes. At one end of the spectrum is the important role population data plays in managing the cost of healthcare to the country’s population. Population analytics identify opportunities for earlier detection and more effective treatments, while precision healthcare data allows these analytics to be uniquely applied to each patient. At the other extreme, is the desire to keep our personal health information private.”

According to an Ascension statement from Eduardo Conrado, the company’s executive vice president, strategy and innovations, Google is not permitted to use the data for marketing or research purposes.

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“Ascension is working with Google to address the interoperability challenges that currently exist with patient medical records to allow for easy, accurate, and secure exchange of patient health information. The goal is to be able to pull clinical information from many different systems and sites of care into a consolidated view so caregivers are able to make the best decision for patients,” Conrado wrote. 

“This seems like a natural business partnership, but the fact that it was done with a lack of transparency and disclosure has put a shadow of fear and concern around it,” says Pruger.

“The issue with this incident is not legality or security, as everything I’ve read points to this partnership being legal and Google’s data centers being secure,” he says. “The underlying issue is the lack of transparency and disclosure. The negative publicity was self-inflicted and could have been mitigated if Google and Ascension had been open about it from the start. It’s the perception of secrecy that has caused backlash.”

Don’t shy away

“Healthcare executives shouldn’t use this incident to shy away from the cloud, because the right cloud solution can provide many benefits-security, compliance, cost savings, and big data analytics. However, they should of course use due care and vet all solutions before turning over any protected health information [PHI] and exposing their patients to risk,” says Pruger.

“Healthcare executives should understand that major players in healthcare technology and the healthcare delivery sectors are actively investing in and pursuing large-scale initiatives that could transform the patient healthcare experience and how healthcare itself is delivered,” says Marc Rubenstein, chief operating officer of Salucro, a healthcare technology company based in Phoenix. “Failure to keep up with the healthcare data revolution could leave health systems behind in payment or delivery innovations.”

Rubsenstein advises that executives stay responsive and at the leading edge of innovation. “Healthcare technology companies will need to adopt serious communication plans to address the legitimate privacy and security concerns of consumers and regulators,” he says. “Failure to clearly communicate innovations and initiatives may cause confusion that could derail or slow down an otherwise beneficial idea.”

A deeper relationship

It is likely that the industry will see deeper partnerships between healthcare vendors and public cloud providers, according to Pruger.

“It’s a natural fit where each business can focus on their core competency while at the same time provide value add services,” he explains. “Public cloud providers are very good at securely storing large amounts of data at low cost and providing big data tools to healthcare providers, who can then leverage these scalable technologies to deliver better patient care. The hope is that this will not dissuade other technology firms and healthcare providers from looking to develop synergies that will ultimately better serve patients.”

The healthcare landscape is undergoing a data revolution in itself, and as a data-driven industry, this means that the entire industry will evolve significantly as the technology companies and healthcare providers continue to work together, according to Rubenstein. “Only recently has the power of technology become available to truly transform patient data analytics, and Google and Ascension are clearly eager to explore this opportunity,” he says.

In addition to how data is secured and used by Google, we should be concerned by how technology companies approach cost reduction, according to D’Onofrio. “Technology and data are used to streamline a process, often by removing the middleman or steps in the process,” he says. “Unfortunately, this approach tends to lean toward replacing the physician’s participation in healthcare with technology. The technology providers must ensure the ultimate goal in using data is to support the physician in providing better, more efficient care, and not in any way that diminishes the physician’s role in providing care.”

Tracey Walker is content manager of Managed Healthcare Executive®.