An agreement under which US tech giant Google will get access to an estimated 1.6 million UK National Health Service patient records has stirred up a debate around transparency.
Google's artificial intelligence division DeepMind, will have access to all of the data of patients from three London hospitals run by the Royal Free NHS Trust from over the past five years and up to 2017.
In February the NHS Royal Free Trust said it would be sharing its database with DeepMind to help build a smartphone app that could support doctors and clinicians in detecting acute kidney injury.
But what was not clearly defined at the time was the extent of the agreement, which would see Google receive anonymised data on HIV status, recorded overdoses and abortions. It also includes the results of pathology and radiology tests, as well as hospital activity logs, such as records of the location and status of patients.
The data will not be stored or processed at DeepMind, but held by a contracted third party (whose name has been withheld).
Critics of the agreement have argued that there was a failure to adequately inform patients about how their information was being used. This responsibility has been set out in Britain’s Caldicott Principles, commissioned in 1997 due to concern about how information was being used in the NHS, which says medical practitioners must “justify the purpose” of transferring data and “use the minimum necessary patient-identifiable data possible.”
However, Caldicott also says health professionals may rely on implied consent when sharing personal data in the interests of direct care.
Royal Free defended the deal. In a statement, it said, "Absolutely no patient-identifiable data is shared with DeepMind. The information is encrypted and only the Royal Free London has the key to that encryption.
“We have used our standard data sharing agreement, which is in line with the legislation and policy requirements as published by the regulators. Over 1,500 third party organisations have undergone similar NHS information governance processes.”
Patients can request an opt out by contacting the trust’s data protection officer.
The aim of the agreement between the Royal Free and Deepmind is to develop an app, called Streams, that will improve the detection of acute kidney injury (AKI) by immediately - and automatically - reviewing blood test results for signs of deterioration and sending an alert and the results to the most appropriate clinician via a dedicated handheld device.
The DeepMind team is not allowed to share data with any other part of Google and must delete all data once the agreement comes to an end in 2017.
Google is building a reputation in medical apps having recently acquired an early stage clinical task management app, called Hark, built by a team from Imperial College London.
The company is also making huge strides in artificial intelligence. In March, DeepMind made headlines by creating a programme that mastered the 3,000-year-old Chinese board game Go.
DeepMind started out as a University College London spinout co-founded by Demis Hassabis, Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman which Google bought in January 2014. The project employs around 140 researchers at its lab in London and aims to make machines capable of learning things for themselves.