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November 30, 2016

Google gets five-year access to health data of 1.6m people

The Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust and Artificial intelligence firm DeepMind have teamed up for the next five years to develop a clinical app called Streams. The deal extends the already controversial partnership between the London-based startup, which was bought by Google in 2014, and the healthcare trust.

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The Streams is an app to be used by healthcare professionals. It will trigger mobile alerts when a patient’s vital signs or blood results become abnormal. Doctors can intervene quickly and prevent the problem from escalating.

According to the trust Streams has, thus far, been using algorithms to detect acute kidney injury, and added that it would “alert doctors to [a] patient in need “within seconds”, rather than hours [and] free up doctors from paperwork, creating more than half a million hours of extra direct care”. The aim is to use Streams as a diagnostic support tool for a far wider range of illness, including sepsis and organ failure.

Concerns

New Scientist published an article earlier this year which told about raising concerns that the partnership had given DeepMind access to “a wide range of healthcare data on the 1.6 million patients … from the last five years”, and noted that the data will be stored in the UK by a third party and that DeepMind is obliged to delete its copy of the data when the agreement expires.

In a follow-up story published this week, New Scientist revealed that the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office began investigating the data-sharing agreement following its revelations. A statement from the office says that it is “working to ensure that the project complies with the Data Protection Act.”

Privacy firms also share the concern that medical records are being collected on a massive scale without the explicit consent of patients. Phil Booth, coordinator of medConfidential, queried the value of the app: “Our concern is that Google gets data on every patient who has attended the hospital in the last five years and they’re getting a monthly report of data … [but] because the patient history is up to a month old, [it] makes the entire process unreliable and makes the fog of unhelpful data potentially even worse.”

Julia Powles, a lawyer who specializes in technology law and policy from the University of Cambridge states that “We do not know – and have no power to find out – what Google and DeepMind are really doing with NHS patient data, nor the extent of Royal Free’s meaningful control over what DeepMind is doing.”

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