Health information may no longer be as private and protected as it seems.


Dylan Wu

Tech giant Google, in conjunction with the second-largest health care system in the country, Ascension, has just revealed its “Nightingale Project.” It reportedly contains the medical information of millions of patients in 21 states and is the latest of Silicon Valley’s (including Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon) aggressive push into health care.

The Nightingale Project works as follows. Patients first check into their doctor’s office, hospital, or senior care center. Nurses and doctors then evaluate the patients and input the data into the computer, where it is automatically transferred and stored in the Nightingale Project database. This information includes lab results, hospitalization records, diagnoses, and health history. Based on the data, the system provides suggestions such as further tests and treatments and recommendations for the addition or removal of a doctor from a patient’s care team.

Currently, patients and doctors whose data are already included in the database have not yet been notified even though the information is available to 150 Google employees. Although Ascension employees are concerned with the ethics of such technology, Google states that the Nightingale Project complies with federal health law (Health Insurance and Accountability Act) and patient data protection.

Both Google and Ascension have much to gain from their collaboration. As a whole, they aim to design new software that utilizes machine learning and artificial intelligence to individualize suggestions for patient care. Tariq Shaukat, president of Google Cloud, which heads the division handling the project, claims his goal is saving lives, improving outcomes, reducing costs. Google would like to integrate its products into health systems and accumulate patient data in one place. Google Cloud also trails behind similar competing divisions of Microsoft and Amazon, so Google aims to make significant expansion and progress of the Cloud through the project. Meanwhile, the executive vice president of Ascension, Eduardo Conrado, stressed that transformation is essential in the rapidly evolving health care world to meet the expectations of patients, health care providers, and caregivers. The company thus strives to achieve better patient care, discover additional revenue streams from patients, and develop faster electronic record-keeping.

However, Google’s big revelation is not without scrutiny, as it has had privacy issues in the past. For example, Google-owned YouTube paid 170 million dollars in fines for not maintaining user privacy in illegally collecting data on children to sell ads. In addition, hundreds of thousands of birth dates, contact information, and other personal data were leaked on social networking site Google Plus. There are also ongoing federal investigations that include examinations of Google’s home speakers and free email service. The latest criticism is that Google will have access to even more health information after acquiring Fitbit. Google’s response is that it will fully comply with any investigations, strengthen existing and create new privacy protections, and be transparent about future data collection services.