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By Rob Copeland
Google is engaged in a secret project with one of the country's largest health-care systems to collect and crunch the detailed personal health information of millions of Americans across 21 states, according to people familiar with the matter and internal documents.
The initiative, code-named "Project Nightingale," appears to be the largest in a series of efforts by Silicon Valley giants to gain access to personal health data and establish a toehold in the massive health-care industry. Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are also aggressively pushing into health care, though they haven't yet struck deals of this scope.
Google began the effort last year with St. Louis-based Ascension, the second-largest health system in the U.S., with the data sharing accelerating over this summer and fall, the documents show.
The data involved in Project Nightingale pertains to lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, including patient names and dates of birth.
Neither patients nor doctors have been notified. At least 150 Google employees already have access to much of the data on tens of millions of patients, according to a person familiar with the matter and documents.
Some Ascension employees have raised questions about the way the data is being collected and shared, both from a technological and ethical perspective, according to the people familiar with the project, but privacy experts said it appeared to be permissible under federal law. That law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, generally allows hospitals to share data with business partners without telling patients, as long as the information is used "only to help the covered entity carry out its health care functions."
Google in this case is using the data, in part, to design new software, underpinned by advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning, that zeroes in on individual patients to suggest changes to their care. Staffers across Alphabet Inc., Google's parent, have access to the patient information, documents show, including some employees of Google Brain, a research science division credited with some of the company's biggest breakthroughs.
A Google spokeswoman said the project is fully compliant with federal health law and includes robust protections for patient data. An Ascension spokesman had no immediate comment.
Google and nonprofit Ascension have parallel financial motives. Google has assigned dozens of engineers to Project Nightingale so far, without charging for the work, because it hopes to use the framework to sell similar products to other health systems. Its end goal is to create an omnibus search tool to aggregate disparate patient data and host it all in one place, documents show.
The project is being developed under Google's cloud division, which trails rivals like Amazon and Microsoft in market share. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has said repeatedly this year that finding new areas of growth for cloud is a priority.
Ascension, a Catholic chain of 2,600 hospitals, doctors' offices and other facilities, aims in part to improve patient care. It also hopes to mine data to order up more tests or determine where it might be able to make more money from an individual patient, documents show. Ascension is also eager for a faster system than its existing decentralized electronic record-keeping network.
Google, like many of its Silicon Valley peers, has at times drawn criticism for not doing enough to protect user privacy. Its YouTube unit agreed in September to pay $170 million in fines and make changes to its practices in response to complaints that it illegally collected data on children to sell ads. YouTube neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing.
Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google hid a flaw that exposed hundreds of thousands of birth dates, contact information and other personal data of subscribers in its now-defunct social-networking website Google Plus, in part because of fears that the incident could trigger regulatory scrutiny. Google said at the time it went beyond legal requirements in determining not to inform users.
Write to Rob Copeland at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 11, 2019 14:33 ET (19:33 GMT)
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