Creepy Google using 1.6million NHS patient records deemed inappropriate

Dominic King

Dominic King

GOOGLE HAS been accused of having access to sensitive NHS data on an "inappropriate legal basis" as moral panic over the recent WannaCry ransomware attack on the NHS mounts and spreads into entirely separate issues.

This investigation is now being carried out by the United Kingdom government's data watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), with the ICO telling Sky News that it is "close to conclusion".

The Royal Free, in a statement, said it used patient data because of its "safety-first" approach to developing Streams. Implied consent is only an appropriate legal basis for the disclosure of identifiable data for the purposes of direct care if it aligns with people's reasonable expectations, i.e.in a legitimate relationship. "My view is that when work is taking place to develop new technology this can not be regarded as direct care, even if the intended end result when the technology is deployed is to provide direct care".

The letter obtained by Sky News was sent to the medical director of the Royal Free NHS Trust in London on 20 February.

"The Streams app was built in close collaboration with clinicians to help prevent unnecessary deaths by alerting them to patients in need in a matter of seconds", the Royal Free said.

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As such, the data transfer is being investigated buy the Information Commissioner's Office to determine whether it violated the Data Protection Act. Patients should instead have been specifically asked to consent to their records being shared. We want to become one of the most transparent companies working in NHS IT, appointing a panel of Independent Reviewers, embarking on a major patient involvement strategy, and starting a ground-breaking project called Verifiable Data Audit. The personally identifiable health data of some 1.6 million NHS patients was used to develop an app for the early detection of a kidney condition. Point being that the patients whose data was shared, their consent was not taken into account. Although during 2016 the app was never actually being used for direct care - it was merely being sporadically tested alongside normal clinical practices.

While there are strict legal protections ensuring the confidentiality of patients' records, under common law patients are "implied" to have consented to their information being shared if it was shared for the objective of "direct care". "Why do they have data for the whole hospital population and how could that ever have been considered direct care?"

She said that while she understood the potential benefits of the Streams app and that the transfer of the data of 1.6m patients was for the objective of testing the app, the patients themselves would not have expected their data to have been shared for this goal. Such testing is essential, but there must be clarity about the regulatory framework and transparency for patients.

A spokesman for DeepMind Health said: "Nurses and doctors have told us that Streams is already speeding up urgent care at the Royal Free and saving hours every day". We're glad the NDG has said that further guidance would be useful to organisations which are undertaking work to test new technologies. The hospital body claimed that the technology supported clinicians to provide faster and more effective care, arguing that strict instructions were in place during initial testing on how DeepMind used data.

"We also recognise that there needs to be much more public engagement and discussion about new technology in the NHS".

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