The Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights is opening an inquiry into a partnership between Ascension and Google to “seek to learn more information about this mass collection of individuals’ medical records to ensure that HIPAA protections were fully implemented,” Director Roger Severino told the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper reported Tuesday.
The news came one day after the Journal published an article that marked the first time many had heard about the collaboration, dubbed “Project Nightingale,” even though a Google executive pointed out in a blog post that the topic had been mentioned in the tech company’s second-quarter earnings call.
“Google’s ‘Project Nightingale’ Gathers Personal Health Data on Millions of Americans: Search giant is amassing health records from Ascension facilities in 21 states; patients not yet informed,” were the words topping the Wall Street Journal article published Monday.
St. Louis-based Ascension, parent company of Ascension Living, is one of the largest healthcare organizations in the country, with more than 2,600 sites of care in 21 states and the District of Columbia, including 151 hospitals and more than 50 senior living and care facilities. Data related to Ascension Living are not part of the project, an Ascension Living spokeswoman told McKnight’s Senior Living.
So what exactly is the partnership?
According the Wall Street Journal, Project Nightingale began “in secret” last year and picked up speed this summer.
Data on “tens of millions of patients,” including names, dates of birth, test results, diagnoses and more, are being collected and shared with employees of Google’s parent company so they can “design new software … that zeroes in on individual patients to suggest changes to their care,” the media outlet reported.
Ascension’s goals for the project, the Wall Street Journal said, are to improve care, determine how to generate more revenue from customers, and create a faster record-keeping system. Google, on the other hand, according to the newspaper, could benefit from the project by learning how to improve its offerings to compete with rivals.
The organizations maintain that the effort is compliant with HIPAA, even though “a limited number of Google employees” may access protected health information in order to meet the ultimate goals of the project.
“We are happy to cooperate with any questions about the project,” Google Cloud President of Industry Products and Solutions Tariq Shaukat wrote about the federal inquiry in a blog post written Monday and amended Tuesday. “We believe Google’s work with Ascension adheres to industry-wide regulations (including HIPAA) regarding patient data, and comes with strict guidance on data privacy, security, and usage.”
Ascension published a post about the initiative on its website on Monday after the WSJ article was published and followed up on Tuesday with a piece bylined by Ascension Executive Vice President of Strategy and Innovations Eduardo Conrado.
Shaukat and Conrado, in their posts, also discussed the goals of the project.
“In addition to moving its infrastructure to Google Cloud and its productivity software to G Suite, Ascension is also working with Google to pilot tools for doctors and nurses to use in patient care,” Shaukat said. “Specifically, we are piloting tools that could help Ascension’s doctors and nurses more quickly and easily access relevant patient information, in a consolidated view.” One media report described the system that will result from the project as a type of search engine for medical records that will be used in Ascension facilities.
Data will be safeguarded and not used for any purpose other than the project, Shaukat said.
Ascension, according to Conrado, “is working with Google to address the interoperability challenges that currently exist with patient medical records to allow for easy, accurate and secure exchange of patient health information.”
“The goal is to be able to pull clinical information from many different systems and sites of care into a consolidated view so caregivers are able to make the best decision for patients,” he added. “The work we’re doing includes developing new technologies that enable our clinicians to find important clinical information easier so patients can be assured their caregivers have access to the right information to provide safe, effective care.”
The work is “groundbreaking” and “will help Ascension lead the transformation of healthcare,” Conrado said.