Business as usual?

1 min read

DeepMind’s data sharing agreement with the NHS has raised a number of questions. But should we be concerned?

Is the data sharing agreement signed between Google and the NHS ‘business as usual’, as claimed by University College London Professor Hugh Montgomery who, it should be noted, works for Google? Or should we, as some commentators have suggested, be worried about Google having access so much data on the medical records of patients?

The agreement isn’t unique. There are currently more than 1500 separate deals that the NHS has signed with technology providers in relation to handling patient data, all with high levels of security.

What makes this agreement stand out is how the data will be used and by whom, as it involves Google’s DeepMind company which specialises in artificial intelligence.

DeepMind will be using patient data from the NHS – private data, albeit anonymised – to develop an app that will produce medical alerts and access to patient data for clinicians treating patients with acute kidney injuries. Crucially it will be used to identify in-patients who could be at risk of kidney failure.

Concerns have been raised at the way in which medical data is being used and the amount of data DeepMind will be accessing given that the app being developed is intended to treat one specific medical condition. Previous efforts by the UK Government to create a medical database floundered over concerns about medical confidentiality.

The project is interesting in that it was initiated by clinicians themselves; they realised the data being generated was too complex and what would be needed is the processing capabilities of ‘big data’.

According to reports, Google is not receiving any payment for this work and is looking to use the data to develop more effective data analytics which, in time, will benefit all of us – few countries have the amount of data the UK’s NHS has generated since its inception more than 70 years ago.

While DeepMind hasn’t hidden its work with the NHS, perhaps both Google and DeepMind could have been less secretive, reporting in the mainstream media has been dominated by talk of ‘Big Brother’, clouding the issue and the real benefits big data analytics could bring, not only by preventing disease, but also by cutting the costs of healthcare in the UK.

This isn’t the place to discuss the rights of wrongs associated with whether patient information should be used without the individual’s consent, but what this type of project needs is more accurate and unsensational reporting.