Revealed: Google AI has access to huge haul of NHS patient data
A data-sharing agreement obtained by New Scientist shows that Google DeepMind’s collaboration with the NHS goes far beyond what it has publicly announced
It’s no secret that Google has broad ambitions in healthcare. But a document obtained by New Scientist reveals that the tech giant’s collaboration with the UK’s National Health Service goes far beyond what has been publicly announced.
The document – a data-sharing agreement between Google-owned artificial intelligence company DeepMind and the Royal Free NHS Trust – gives the clearest picture yet of what the company is doing and what sensitive data it now has access to.
The agreement gives DeepMind access to a wide range of healthcare data on the 1.6 million patients who pass through three London hospitals run by the Royal Free NHS Trust – Barnet, Chase Farm and the Royal Free – each year. This will include information about people who are HIV-positive, for instance, as well as details of drug overdoses and abortions. The agreement also includes access to patient data from the last five years.
“The data-sharing agreement gives Google access to information on millions of NHS patients”
Google given access to London patient records for research
But critics have questioned why it needs the data of all patients to create such a specific app.
Under the data-sharing agreement, Google’s artificial intelligence division DeepMind will have access to all of the data of patients from the Royal Free, Barnet and Chase Farm hospitals in London going back over the past five years and continuing until 2017.
It plans to use the data to develop an app known as Streams that will alert doctors when someone is at risk of developing acute kidney injury (AKI).
The data remains encrypted, meaning that Google employees should not be able to identify anyone, according to the Royal Free Trust.
It said that doctors from the Trust approached DeepMind about the development of the app.
In a statement, it said: “Our arrangement with DeepMind is the standard NHS information-sharing agreement set out by NHS England’s corporate information governance department, and is the same as the other 1,500 agreements with third-party organisations that process NHS patient data.
“As with all information sharing agreements with non-NHS organisations, patients can opt out of any data-sharing system by contacting the trust’s data protection officer.”
Sam Smith, a co-ordinator of patient data campaign group MedConfidential, said: “The big question is why they want it. This a very rich data set. If you are someone who went to the A&E department, why is your data in this?”
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Back in February, it began work with the Royal Free to create an app to help doctors spot patients who might be at risk of developing kidney disease. The first most knew of the partnership was when it emerged some months later that it would be accessing 1.6 million patient records as part of the deal.
it became clear that DeepMind has much more ambitious plans when it comes to patient data, so much so that anyone attending could have been forgiven for thinking that it had won a contract to digitise the NHS. Mr Suleyman spoke at length about a patient portal that would be accessible to both patients and doctors and available on their own smartphones.
It would allow doctors to search a patient’s entire medical history in chronological order before they arrived at their bedside. Patients may be able to input their own data, for example, if they suddenly had a change in their condition or experienced problems after an operation. The plan shocked some audience members who had not spoken out earlier.
“What was astounding to me, was the sense of entitlement that this commercial company clearly feels to access NHS patient medical records without consent and that many in the room seemed to have accepted that unquestioningly,” said Jen Persson, a co-ordinator from campaign group Defenddigitalme. “Patients have been left out so far of what DeepMind has done. The firm is not at the start of ‘patient and public engagement’ as it put it, but playing catch-up after getting caught getting it wrong,” she added.