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A lawsuit filed on Wednesday alleges that Google and the University of Chicago Medical Center violated HIPAA regulations after inking a 2017 partnership whereby the University of Chicago provided deidentified patient health data to the tech giant to boost the development of machine-learning diagnostic tools, per the New York Times.
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The case represents the complex challenges tech companies and providers face in navigating the new, digital healthcare landscape. While University of Chicago stated that the legal action is "without merit," claimants argue that the University failed its patients by not receiving prior consent to share their data with a third party and by handing over information regarding dates of care, which could be combined with Google GPS data to reidentify patients.
No evidence has been offered suggesting Google actually combined patient data with GPS info. However, the lawsuit maintains that University of Chicago and Google’s actions "put patients’ privacy at grave risk." An unfavorable ruling against Google would be an obstacle in the company’s desired path into the electronic health record and predictive care spheres.
Google’s lax attitude toward patient privacy is characteristic of many third-party tech partnerships in healthcare.
- The lawsuit strikes similar chords to a 2017 data security decision leveled against Google subsidiary DeepMind Health and the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). A UK regulatory agency found that a 2015 deal struck between AI-analytics company DeepMind and the NHS was illegal by UK data security standards. DeepMind used data from 1.6 million patients — including sensitive data on drug overdoses and abortions — to develop a clinical workflow optimization app called Streams. And Google announcedlast November that it would be absorbing the AI developer into Google Health, rousing new concerns over patient privacy.
- Facebook has also been slammed over inappropriate use of consumer health data. Earlier this year, we covered how Facebook continually accesses personal health information from top smartphone apps. At least six of the top 15 health and fitness apps in Apple’s US app store deliver user data to Facebook after closing — regardless of if users have been previously advised and whether or not they even have a Facebook account.
Though the cost could be high for providers that get caught up in big tech HIPAA infractions, the promises of technological innovation are likely too tantalizing to turn down. Health providers may still be on the hook for HIPAA violations, including infractions made by third-party health apps, as clarified in recent HHS guidelines.
But I (Zach) think providers will continue to team up with big tech as they invest more heavily in AI solutions to combat complex healthcare problems: More than 40% of health executives say AI will transform healthcare over the next three years, according to a survey from Accenture.
And with Accenture projecting the AI market will grow 40% annually through 2021 — pushing toward a $6.6 billion valuation — the biggest names in tech are most certainly going to want in on the action.
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