Google Gets Hands On Patient Records

John Lister's picture

Google has been granted access to millions of patient medical records in the United Kingdom. It plans to use it to develop a way to spot patients at risk of developing serious kidney conditions.

Although officials say personally identifying details will remain encrypted, the move has raised controversy with questions about the scope of the data involved.

The records cover every patient who had dealings in the past five years with one of three specific hospitals in London overseen by the same NHS Trust. That's the local organizational body that delivers government-funded healthcare.

'Deep Mind' Will Analyze Records

Around 1.6 million people a year deal with the trust concerned. The number is so high as it includes routine hospital treatment, emergency room visits, specialists and visits to general practitioners (the UK equivalent of primary care physicians).

The data will go to Google's Deep Mind organization, which works on artificial intelligence, for a program named Streams. The idea is to use computers to analyze historic patterns of medical activity and conditions to better identify early earnings for acute kidney injury, a condition in which kidneys rapidly decline from working as normal to partially or completely failing. The condition is said to play at least a partial role in around one in five emergency room admissions. (Source:

According to Google, it needs the full 1.6 million people's records because the data isn't set up in a way that makes it easy to filter out those who specifically have kidney conditions. It will also get updates for the duration of the program, meaning some patients may develop acute kidney injury for the first time, at which point Google can look back at its existing data to help refine risk patterns.

Program Is Test Of Concept

Although the program centers on kidney issues, it's also a test of the entire concept of computer spotting risk patterns so could be extended to other conditions in future programs.

Google will be allowed to use the data until September 2017 at which point it must delete the records. (Source:

What's Your Opinion?

Should the trusts have agreed to give Google this data? Is it a worthwhile exercise if it proves the data mining can detect early warning signals for conditions? Can Google be trusted with the encrypted data?

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Dennis Faas's picture

This sounds very similar to how virus scanners work with files. Virus heuristics are a set of rules designed to 'judge' whether or not a file is potentially infected with a virus. If so, action is taken by the virus scanner (such as quarantine file), where the potentially dangerous file can be dealt with at a later time. At any rate, let's hope Google keeps the data confidential and doesn't start serving up ads for dialysis to users affected by the disease.

matt_2058's picture

I'm glad to see technology at work like this. There many areas that would benefit from projects like this. It would be nice if billion-dollar companies would help humanity this way.

I also find it interesting that at a time when citizens are more concerned about privacy, the government hands over millions of records to one of the world's top data collectors. The patients' privacy should be a requirement. The only way to ensure that is to have oversight and establishing a team of government employees or a third party to monitor the process from records collection to deletion. The government goes to extreme measures to keep its intelligence information safe, so it shouldn't be all that hard to accomplish this.

Misuse happens on a regular basis. Go to the doctor and start getting health related junk mail. Buy a car and start getting car insurance and third-party extended warranty junk mail, even though the only people aware is the dealer, my insurance, and the DMV. I joke that I'll get a law degree to handle this stupidity. Who knows, it may happen one day.

alan.cameron_4852's picture

I have made sure that my records will never be transferred to an organisation which can predict diseases or illnesses. Just think what they could do with that information.
If they are allowed to sell it to insurance companies the result will be very very expensive for any affected who seeks life insurance.

omeomi.janice_6982's picture

This does not make me comfortable one bit. The information can be misused so easily. Perhaps I've been reading too much Robin Cook, but I wouldn't want my medical information accessed or used.

I suppose if the hospital and Google have a signed permission form at least the person knows what is happening.

cpdahl54's picture

We should have seen this coming with the passage of HIPPAA and the Patriot Act. The only entity we cannot opt out of sharing our files with is the gov't. This is not a good idea, but it goes hand in hand with any type of "national healthcare" ie Obamacare. Eventually it will be used to "weed out" the sick & unhealthy. Looks like those 'death panels' will be coming after all.Only a matter of time.I'm diabetic and I cannot believe the number of e-mails I get now touting diabetic cures & treatments.