What's Behind Google's Project Nightingale That Gathers Healthcare Data On Millions Of Americans

Google has long been fascinated with the healthcare industry, and in a move that some may find unsettling, it has been mining patient data in collaboration with Ascension, a non-profit Catholic healthcare organization with more than 2,600 hospitals and facilities.

Naturally, Google and Ascension are pitching this joint effort as a good thing, one that will help the latter "optimize the health and wellness of individuals and communities."

"As the healthcare environment continues to rapidly evolve, we must transform to better meet the needs and expectations of those we serve as well as our own caregivers and healthcare providers. Doing that will require the programmatic integration of new care models delivered through the digital platforms, applications and services that are part of the everyday experience of those we serve," said Eduardo Conrado, Executive Vice President, Strategy and Innovations, Ascension.

The joint press release by Google and Ascension came after The Wall Street Journal reported on an initiative codenamed "Project Nightingale." According to the report, this looks to be the biggest effort yet by a Silicon Valley firm to entrench itself into the healthcare industry by handling patient data.

Project Nightingale began in secret last year with Ascension, according to the report, and gathers data such as lab results, doctor diagnoses, hospitalization records, and more. It essentially amounts to a comprehensive overview of patients' health history, along with certain identifying information (names and dates of birth).

A person who is supposedly familiar with the matter told WSJ doctors and patients had not been notified (prior to the press release), and that at least 150 Google workers have access to a lot of the data pertaining to tens of millions of patients.

The subsequent press release says this collaboration will allow Ascension to streamline consumer engagement with healthcare and empower them to be proactively engaged in maintaining their health. It lists other benefits as well, such as improving the caregiver experience and efficiency of Ascension's technology operations.

"Ascension is a leader at increasing patient access to care across all regions and backgrounds, particularly those in disadvantaged communities. We’re proud to partner with them on their digital transformation," said Tariq Shaukat, President, Google Cloud. "By working in partnership with leading healthcare systems like Ascension, we hope to transform the delivery of healthcare through the power of the cloud, data analytics, machine learning, and modern productivity tools—ultimately improving outcomes, reducing costs, and saving lives."

Shaukat's statement highlights that Google is not shying away from this being a major play in healthcare. Why some may find this concerning is because big tech companies in general have a poor track record with customer data. Facebook, for example, was rocked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which resulted in data of tens of millions of users being harvest for the sake of politics.

Google has had its share of privacy screw ups and controversial practices, too. For example, it recently came under fire for hiring subcontractors to listen to audio records from its smart products. And this past summer, a lawsuit (PDF) filed against Google and the University of Chicago Medical Center accused the outfits of mishandling healthcare patient data because the "records were not sufficiently anonymized."

As with Google's recent acquisition of Fitbit, the question of how much Google truly cares about healthcare versus seeing it as a treasure of data to be monetized is a fair one. To Google's credit, it has done some wonderful things in the field—last year, Google's Medical Brain team developed an algorithm that can assess health risks, including likely a patient is to die. Let's hope good things come out of this collaboration.