'Project Nightingale': Google's Initiative to Gather Millions of Health Records
Sat, April 10, 2021

'Project Nightingale': Google's Initiative to Gather Millions of Health Records

A 2018 report conducted by Intel and Convergys showed that more than half of healthcare professionals surveyed believe “widespread adoption” is less than five years away / Photo by: Zapp2Photo via Shutterstock

 

Artificial intelligence is rapidly gaining steam in the healthcare industry. A 2018 report conducted by Intel and Convergys showed that more than half of healthcare professionals surveyed believe “widespread adoption” is less than five years away. Nearly 20% believe that it will take less than two years to reach full-scale adoption of AI. Also, about 77% of current users are leveraging AI for clinical applications, including risk scoring, decision support, medication safety warnings, and other patient-facing tasks.

Healthcare IT News, the industry’s authoritative source covering the people, policy, and technology driving next-generation healthcare in the US, surveyed 142 qualified professionals working in IT, business, informatics and clinical roles within hospitals, health insurers, and pharmaceutical companies. The report revealed 63% of the participants stated that AI and machine learning are already delivering value in specialty care such as pharma, pathology, and radiology. 

Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH, an American Medical Association Board Member, stated that the healthcare industry could use the advancements in technology to benefit patients, physicians, and the broader health care community. “Combining AI methods and systems with an irreplaceable human clinician can advance the delivery of care in a way that outperforms what either can do alone. But we must forthrightly address challenges in the design, evaluation, and implementation as this technology is increasingly integrated into physicians’ delivery of care to patients,” he said. 

Thus, many tech companies like Google are using AI for the future of healthcare. It is applying AI to new data infrastructure, disease detection, and potentially insurance as the company believes that the technology can create a powerful new paradigm for the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. 

Recently, Google announced that it has partnered with Ascension, the second-largest healthcare provider in the US, to move its clinical data onto the tech giant's cloud platform. While this seems like a new door for more opportunities, critics have been skeptical about this acquisition.

Google’s Project Nightingale

Google and Ascension's partnership, which is called “Project Nightingale,” aims to improve how information is used for patient care. The name is a shorthand way to refer to the initiative, reflecting the work of Florence Nightingale, a figure in nursing who propelled care in the 19th and 20th centuries. According to The Verge, an American technology news and media network operated by Vox Media, Google has acquired around 50 million patients' data that includes “lab results, doctor diagnoses, and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, complete with patient names and dates of birth.” 

Project Nightingale, which is considered the largest trove of patient information to date, is part of Google and Ascension's effort to build tools, including AI and machine learning, in making health records more searchable, more accessible, and more useful for medical professionals. While data sharing between healthcare and tech companies have commonly occurred, this project has not only gathered millions of patient records in hospitals but also their personal data such as addresses, and employer and medical record numbers. 

The tech giant hopes that through Project Nightingale, it can design software that leverages AI and machine learning in making suggestions in patients’ treatment plans. Google also aims to create a search tool that would aggregate patient data into a central location. Meanwhile, Ascension hopes that this project will create tools for physicians to access patient information more quickly. 

“In order to empower our caregivers to provide safer, more effective and efficient care 24/7, we are testing point-of-care tools for our clinicians to quickly have access to more complete and specifically tailored patient data,” Eduardo Conrado, Executive Vice President and Chief Digital Officer of Ascension, said. 

Google and Ascension's partnership, which is called “Project Nightingale,” aims to improve how information is used for patient care. The name is a shorthand way to refer to the initiative, reflecting the work of Florence Nightingale / Photo by: Benny Marty via Shutterstock

 

Issues With Project Nightingale

However, it didn’t take long for Project Nightingale to be scrutinized. Recently, the US Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights opened a federal inquiry into Google’s partnership with Ascension. According to CNN, an American news-based pay television channel owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, the department wanted to learn more information about the mass collection of patient data across 20 states in the country. 

While the partnership was made public, all the data that Google gathered was kept secret. Aside from that, there has been a lack of notice to doctors and patients about the project. This has raised serious concerns about the way the tech giant would handle patients’ health information to build new AI and other tools. A whistleblower who works in Project Nightingale revealed that one employee had expressed his concern about how the company is making sure that not everyone working on the project is trained to download patient data. 

Aside from that, experts fear the transfer may be in breach of federal HIPAA rules on data privacy. According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, the whistleblower mentioned the widespread anxiety among Project Nightingale employees about the secrecy of the transfer. They are also concerned about how the tech giant was being given access to personal information of millions of patients. Also, the fact that millions of sensitive and potentially valuable data were being amassed by one big tech company could be extremely alarming. 

As of now, both Google and Ascension haven’t commented on the concerns and issues being raised with Project Nightingale. Nonetheless, this project is proof that companies could go miles to further advancements in AI and other technological tools.