A federal inquiry has been opened into Google and Ascension's "Project Nightingale" to determine if HIPPA protections were implemented while the system gathered detailed health information from millions of patients, according to Roger Severino, the director for the Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights.
"While new technology holds great promise for improving healthcare outcomes, the privacy and security of patients' health data must not be sacrificed to achieve this goal," Severino said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal.
HIPPA, or the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, lets hospitals share data with its business partners if the information is only used to help them carry out healthcare functions.
The Journal reported Tuesday that Google and Ascension, based in St. Louis, are sharing records to process data for administrative and treatment reasons in an attempt to leverage artificial intelligence for patient outcome purposes. But in this case, patients and doctors were not notified.
Ascension, the second-largest healthcare system in the country, has information on patients stored in 40 data centers nationwide, and are working to store it all in the cloud through Project Nightingale, in an effort to cover personal health records of 50 million patients and allow them to be accessed remotely, including by Google employees.
The data includes not only names and dates of birth but detailed medical records and billing claims.
"The optics are bad," Ellen Wright Clayton, professor of biomedical ethics at Vanderbilt University, told the Journal. "The legal argument is tenuous. Ethically, this is a bad strategy. They need to tell people what they are doing."
She added Google could also break HIPPA rules if it uses the data for independent research that does not involve patient care.
Google would not comment if it would conduct research with the data, and people familiar with the project said workers are still going through Ascension's collections and do not know what might be produced.
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