Feds Eye Google's Massive Health-Data Project, Lawmakers Roused

A federal agency will investigate Google’s project with Ascension, the nation’s second-largest health system, to analyze and use detailed health information from 50 million U.S. patients.

In addition, some federal lawmakers are calling for a moratorium and new health care privacy legislation.

The reactions are fallout from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal report that the nation’s second-largest health system, Ascension, is sharing personally identifiable information on patients including names, dates of birth, lab tests, diagnoses, medication, hospitalization history, billing and other clinical records with Google.

Google is moving the data into its cloud-computing system, with plans to use artificial intelligence to analyze the data. The partners say the program, internally dubbed “Project Nightingale,” has the ultimate goal of improving health care and treatment capabilities.

Privacy experts have said that so-called “Project Nightingale” is likely permissible under federal law, WSJ reports, since 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.”

But the director of The Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Roger Severino, told WSJ that the office “will seek to learn more information about this mass collection of individuals’ medical records to ensure that HIPAA protections were fully implemented.”

A Google spokesperson told the newspaper that the information will not be used to sell ads. “We are happy to cooperate with any questions about the project,” she stated. “We believe Google’s work with Ascension adheres to industry-wide regulations (including HIPAA) regarding patient data, and comes with strict guidance on data privacy, security, and usage.”

Several lawmakers have already criticized the project, WSJ  reports, including Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) who called for the project to be halted pending an investigation, and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who called for new legislation to apply greater government oversight to how health data is collected and used.

Apple, Amazon and Microsoft are also “aggressively pushing into” the health care sector, WSJ points out.

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