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Google's health care ambitions now involve patient data

FILE - This Sept. 24, 2019, file photo shows a Google sign on the campus in Mountain View, Calif. Google is working with large health care system Ascension. The partnership is intended to use artificial intelligence to find patterns that could help doctors, but some are concerned about privacy and protecting patients’ sensitive health information. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Updated at 3:47 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20.

WASHINGTON — Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren along with fellow Senators Richard Blumenthal and Bill Cassidy wrote a letter to Alphabet’s Google on Wednesday to raise questions about its access to the health records of tens of millions of Americans.

Warren and Blumenthal, who are Democrats, along with Cassidy, a Republican, were focused on a business partnership that Google formed with Clayton-based Ascension, the nation’s biggest nonprofit health care system.

Ascension, which operates 150 hospitals and more than 50 senior living facilities across the United States, is Google’s biggest cloud computing customer in health care, in a deal giving it access to datasets that could help it tune potentially lucrative artificial intelligence (AI) tools.

The lawmakers asked Google to provide information about other health systems which provide information to Google, whether Ascension clients will be allowed to opt out of the project and whether the data be used for advertising, among others.

Google said that it was happy to answer questions about the project.

“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,” the company said in an email statement. 


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Earlier story, posted Nov. 18:

SAN FRANCISCO — Four Democratic leaders on the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee on Monday wrote Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Clayton-based Ascension Health demanding briefings by Dec. 6 on how patient data the hospital chain is storing on the cloud is used.

Google’s cloud computing unit said last week that it has incorporated industry standard security and privacy practices into its deal with Ascension, and that none of the data is being used for advertising purposes.

But House Energy Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. along with members Anna Eshoo, Diana DeGette and Jan Schakowsky, said in their letter that questions remain about what data exactly is stored with Google, which Google employees have access to the data, and to what extent patients were informed about the companies’ agreement. 

Nonprofit Ascension operates more than 2,600 facilities, including 151 hospitals. That’s second only to Nashville, Tennessee-based HCA Healthcare, a for-profit chain with more than 180 hospitals. In addition to its corporate offices, Ascension’s St. Louis area operations include Alexian Brothers of Missouri, a senior care provider.