Google, Ascension clarify health data partnership

Google and Ascension, the nation’s second-largest health system, are insisting their newly revealed partnership is not secret, despite having the code name Project Nightingale.

The Wall Street Journal recently outed the relationship between the two companies, uncovering a partnership where Ascension shares the health data of millions of patients, including names and birthdates, with Google. The revelation of the partnership sparked questions about health data privacy, as patients did not have to be informed their personal health information was being shared with Google.

Google actually notified the public of its relationship with Ascension during its second quarter earnings call in July, according to Ascension Executive Vice President of Strategy and Innovations Eduardo Conrado, who penned a post about the relationship on Nov. 12. In addition, acute care administration and clinical leaders at Ascension were informed “in detail” about the health data project. Front-line nurses and clinicians have also actively participated in the project, Conrado wrote.

Google’s president of industry products and solutions of Google Cloud, Tariq Shaukat, also wrote about the partnership in the Google Cloud blog to address news reports of the relationship with Ascension and Project Nightingale. However, the notice that Google gave back in July about its involvement with Ascension appeared to be somewhat vague and did not specifically mention an initiative called Project Nightingale.

“Google Cloud’s AI and ML solutions are helping healthcare organizations like Ascension improve the healthcare experience and outcomes,” reads the announcement from the July quarterly earnings call.

Project Nightingale was not a secret code name, but “a shorthand way of referring to it,” according to Conrado. The name alludes to a famous nursing figure who influenced care policies, Florence Nightingale.

The privacy concerns stemming from the WSJ’s report about the partnership hover around how Google can use the data. Healthcare organizations are allowed to share data only if it helps them carry out their healthcare functions under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), but Google is also increasingly stepping into the healthcare space with its own technology. In addition, the massive trove of healthcare data could give Google a competitive edge as it fends off healthcare entries of Amazon, Microsoft and Apple.

However, Conrado addressed this concern in his post, too, stating “Google is not permitted to use the data for marketing or research purposes.” Instead, Google’s role is to help Ascension address interoperability challenges of patient medical records, with the goal of creating a consolidated view for caregivers to best care for patients, armed with clinical information from many different systems and sites of care.

Google similarly addressed the privacy concerns.

“To be clear: Under this arrangement, Ascension’s data cannot be used for any other purpose than for providing these services we’re offering under the agreement, and patient data cannot and will not be combined with any Google consumer data,” Shaukat wrote.

The clinical data from the health system is hosted in the Google Cloud platform and housed within an Ascension-owned virtual private space. Record keeping in the cloud is becoming industry standard, Conrado noted. He also assured health information was stored safely and in compliance with HIPAA.