Google has signed an agreement with the NHS that will give it access to sensitive data on patients at hospitals run by London’s Royal Free NHS Trust.
The agreement raises questions around the sharing of patient data, as well as about Google’s broad reach into medical services, where it has access to information that it can use to build data-analysis services that can’t be matched by rivals.
The agreement is linked to the development of a mobile application called Streams, announced by Google subsidiary DeepMind in February, that is aimed at helping hospital staff monitor patients with kidney disease.
But under the terms of the agreement, which weren’t disclosed until they were reported by science magazine New Scientist, Google will have broad access to data on the 1.6 million patients who use the trust’s three hospitals, Barnet, Chase Farm and the Royal Free, each year.
The data includes information on people who are HIV-positive and details of drug overdoses and abortions, as well as real-time data on admissions, discharges and patient transfers, and access to patient data for the past five years, according to the agreement.
Google acknowledged the agreement, saying that the NHS has no separate data set for people with kidney conditions, meaning all hospital data is needed in order for Streams to run effectively.
The data is to be used to train tools that can spot patterns in large amounts of data and help hospital staff focus on what’s relevant, for instance indicators that a patient may be in the early stages of a particular condition, Google said.
Under the agreement’s terms, the data can’t be used by any other part of Google’s business, and is to be stored in the UK by a third party, not in DeepMind’s own offices. DeepMind is required to delete its copy of the data when the agreement expires at the end of September 2017.
The deal gives Google access to detailed daily logs of hospital activity, including the location and status of patients, and who visits them and when, as well as the results of some pathology and radiology tests, according to New Scientist.
It includes five years’ worth of data submitted by the trust to the NHS’ centralised record of all hospital treatments in the UK, including for critical care and accident and emergency care.
The NHS has an opt-out mechanism for data submitted to the historical store, which involves writing to one’s GP, but didn’t respond to a request for comment about how patients cold opt out of other types of data collection.
Life sciences minister George Freeman said in a statement that “tough new measures to ensure patient confidentiality” were designed to ensure NHS patient data was secure and wasn’t sold or used inappropriately.
While Google’s period of access to the data is limited, such access is invaluable for training machine learning technologies of the kind developed by DeepMind.
Academic Ross Anderson of the University of Cambridge told New Scientist that giving Google access to such valuable information could result in the development of important medical services for which Google would be the only provider.
“If Google gets a monopoly on providing some kind of service to the NHS it will burn the NHS,” he said.
The danger of such a monopoly is far from theoretical – EU antitrust regulators last year formally accused Google of abusing its dominant position in Internet search, and last month accused the company of abuse involving its dominant Android mobile operating system.
DeepMind was founded in the UK in 2010 in order to find applications for artificial intelligence technologies created by British researchers, and was acquired by Google in 2014.
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