By Adam Vaughan Google Health has contracts with UK hospitalsIan Miles-Flashpoint Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo This month, the NHS signed its first deals with Google. Five NHS trusts have agreed contracts with Google Health, after it swallowed up its UK sister firm DeepMind Health, nearly a year after signalling its intention to do so. New Scientist first revealed the extent of DeepMind’s access to the sensitive data of more than a million National Health Service patients back in 2016, in a deal that the UK’s data watchdog later found breached the law. The partnership has yielded interesting research, including using artificial intelligence to detect eye disease from scans with an accuracy that matches or exceeds human experts. But is there a material difference now the deals are with the US tech giant rather than DeepMind, and should people who use the NHS be concerned at the change? Advertisement Five trusts, including the Royal Free Hospital and Moorfields Eye Hospital, have transfered their contracts over to Google Health. Taunton and Somerset NHS trust is among them, but will not use the company’s Streams app, which helps keep track of patients’ test results. Yeovil District Hospital NHS trust chose instead to end its contract, saying it didn’t find the app necessary. We don’t know exactly what data sharing is occurring with Google Health, but the Royal Free’s old deal with DeepMind included anonymised data such as treatment dates, medical history, diagnoses, ethnic origin and religion. “Transparency is paramount here. Is Google Health going to be as transparent as DeepMind was?” asks Phil Booth of campaign group MedConfidential. DeepMind took the unusual step of publishing its contracts, but Google Health has not. It says the public can access the documents by asking individual NHS trusts. Dominic King of Google Health says: “There are very minimal changes to the contracts as they moved over. The updates have been about changes related to the GDPR [EU data law], which wasn’t in force when some of the contracts were done a couple of years ago.” David Maguire of The King’s Fund think tank questions why the contracts aren’t being published. “It creates an unnecessary uncertainty, which isn’t great for assuaging people’s fears. There’s a legitimate thing about people feeling nervous about how their data is used.” One change is the data is no longer being stored by a third party contracted by Google. It is now on Google’s cloud infrastructure, which NHS guidelines allow for, stored on servers in the UK, and backed up elsewhere in the EU. Another shift is the abolition of the independent ethics panel that DeepMind established, but that Google Health says doesn’t fit with its international scope. Booth says that although the panel was a “damp squib”, it provided a “level of reassurance” on oversight. King says the firm is heavily scrutinised by its executive board, its partners and regulators. While patients can opt out of their data being shared with Google, under the NHS’s national data opt-out, hospitals don’t have to be compliant with the opt-out until next year. Some observers also have concerns over potential cultural changes during the switchover to Google Health. “Previously the DeepMind Health leadership involved in the actual work in London were well known on the internet scene in the UK as being very ethically minded,” says Tom Loosemore of consultancy Public Digital. “They have now left, because of Google Health taking over.” However, King says: “The same team that I led in DeepMind Health is the same team that will be working with our partners going forward.” Whether patients at the five NHS trusts should be worried is ultimately hard to say. “The problem is: how can I know?” says Loosemore. “Would I personally trust Google? No I damn well wouldn’t, I’d want that transparency.” Article amended on 27 September 2019 We have corrected the research attributed to the partnership between DeepMind and the NHS. More on these topics: NHS Google health data
You must log in to post a comment.