Google-owned company given access to health data of 1.6 million patients

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Google-owned artificial intelligence (AI) company DeepMind Technologies has been given access to ‘sensitive data’ relating to 1.6 million patients spread across three London hospitals, an investigation by New Scientist has found.

According to a document obtained by New Scientist, Google’s London-based AI firm DeepMind has a data-sharing agreement with hospitals run by the Royal Free NHS Trust, which includes the Royal Free, Barnet and Chase Farm hospitals. The agreement effectively grants the company access to up to 1.6 million healthcare records and patient data from the past five years.

According to the Royal Free Trust, DeepMind Technologies – which was acquired by Google in 2014 for a reported £400 million -  is working with the NHS to develop software to improve the detection of acute kidney injury (AKI) in at-risk patients. The technology works by monitoring blood test results for signs of deterioration and immediately alerting appropriate clinicians via its Streams app, delivered on a dedicated handheld device.

woman laying in hospital bed

“40,000 preventable deaths”

The Royal Free says AKI affects more than one in six inpatients and can lead to lengthy stays in hospital, an increased risk of admission to critical care and even death and is said to be a contributory factor in up to 40,000 preventable deaths per year in the UK.

In a statement, the Royal Free says that individual patients would not be informed that their data was being used and that such an agreement was standard practice. It says, however, that it provides DeepMind with NHS patient data “in accordance with strict information governance rules” and only for the purpose of direct clinical care.

“No patient identifiable-data is shared”

The Royal Free also says that no patient-identifiable data is shared with DeepMind - this information can only be decrypted once it reaches hospital staff, and the data being used helps to “provide diagnostic support and track patient outcomes”.

It’s not the first time Google has delved into the health arena - the US-based technology giant launched Calico in 2013 – a company dedicated to investigating the ageing process. In 2014 it launched the research project, Google X, working alongside US universities on a collaborative study. Known as Baseline, the project involves sequencing the genomes of volunteers, collecting data relating to biological and physiological function with the intention, it says, of defining good health and gaining a better understanding of disease.

patient records

Access to “full data”

Sam Smith, of independent health data organisation medConfidential, told New Scientist that no mention had been made about access to historical medical records. He says: “This is not just about kidney function. They’re getting the full data.”

He explains: “What DeepMind is trying to do is build a generic algorithm that can do this for anything – anything you can do a test for. The big question is why they want it. This is a very rich data set. If you are someone who went to the A&E department, why is your data in this?”

According to information seen by New Scientist, the data is stored by a third-party contractor and, in line with the agreement, will be deleted when the agreement expires in September 2017. It is not available to other Google companies.

Dominic King, a senior scientist at Google DeepMind, told the BBC: “The kidney specialists who have led this work are confident that the alerts our system generates will transform outcomes for their patients. For us to generate these alerts it is necessary for us to look at a range of tests taken at different time intervals.”

I’m concerned about the use of my patient data – can I opt out of similar schemes?

To find out more about data-sharing between the NHS and other parties, and information relating to opting out, visit medConfidential.

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Georgie Fenn, writes most of our news articles and social media posts.