Google has gained access to U.S. health records as part of a new project. The Wall Street Journal revealed Project Nightingale, a joint effort between Google and Ascension that gave the former access to patient information from more than 2,600 hospitals.
The Journal reported that Ascension offered Google access to patients' health records, names and addresses. "Health records" is a bit of a catch-all: Google was said to have access to lab results, birth dates, hospitalization records and diagnoses. As if that weren't bad enough, Google didn't have to disclose its use of that data, meaning people who received treatment at one of Ascension's hospitals had no say in the matter.
Project Nightingale reportedly started in 2018 and expanded this summer. Yet it wasn't made public knowledge until the Journal's report, at which point both companies made statements. Google Cloud said it was "proud to announce more details on our partnership with Ascension [...] to support them with technology that helps them to deliver better care to patients across the United States."
The company said it's working with Ascension on three major projects: moving the health care provider's infrastructure to the cloud, moving Ascension employees over to G Suite and "extending tools to doctors and nurses to improve care." It also said its data-sharing with Ascension is "standard practice in healthcare."
Ascension's statement was similar. It said the tools for its medical professionals that Google mentioned involved: "exploring artificial intelligence/machine learning applications that will have the potential to support improvements in clinical quality and effectiveness, patient safety, and advocacy on behalf of vulnerable populations, as well as increase consumer and provider satisfaction."
Both companies also claimed that Google's use of patient data from Ascension would comply with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations and "underpinned by a robust data security and protection effort and adherence to Ascension’s strict requirements for data handling."
Google and Ascension may have suffered from less backlash had it been more transparent earlier. The companies could have offered more information about Project Nightingale a long time ago, but it's no surprise that the WSJ being the first to announce could cast some skepticism over the project.