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Why Health Data is the Next in Big Data Analytics

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“Data is the new oil. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value.”

This comment by British mathematician and data science entrepreneur Clive Humby is what drives technology behemoths in the modern digital world where enterprises are seeking constantly seeking to help customers make choices based on their past preferences and brands are not averse to pay a king’s ransom to those who can crack this code.

Small wonder that Google recently gobbled up Fitbit for a whopping USD 2.1 billion, ostensibly to move into the wearables segment where its closest competitor Apple has opened up a big lead. However, the real reason lies elsewhere… Not just Google, even Apple and Facebook have been on the prowl seeking health data, given that healthcare industry is considered the next big boom sector.

A report published in The Wall Street Journal describes details of Project Nightingale that Google has been running below the radar with America’s second largest healthcare system Ascension. Under the project, Google is sharing personal health data of millions of patients so that its Cloud division can use it to develop AI-based services for medical providers.

However, Google is not alone in this quest. The article suggests that Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are also aggressively seeking healthcare data though they haven’t yet managed to strike deals such as the one Google has with a healthcare system. What’s interesting is that Google claims that it is operating the project as a business associate of Ascension that guarantees health data with legal limitations.

With Indian healthcare sector witnessing several start-ups off late, there is no doubt that data-mining and analytics would soon become an all-pervading business option, which therefore means that our medical records too aren’t safe, more so since there is no real safety mechanisms such as the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) guidelines in the United States.

Sure enough, the United States finds Google’s curiosity a bit too much to handle. A report published by CNET.com says the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services is opening an inquiry into Project Nightingale to seek information about this mass collection of individuals’ medical records to ensure that HIPAA protections are fully implemented.

On its part, Google acknowledged the probe in a blog post. Tariq Shaukat, President, Industry Products and Solutions, Google Cloud, recalls that during the company’s Q2 earnings call, it was mentioned that Google Cloud’s AI and ML solutions were helping healthcare organizations like Ascension improve the quality of delivery and outcomes.

“Our work with Ascension is exactly that—a business arrangement to help a provider with the latest technology, similar to the work we do with dozens of other healthcare providersThese organizations, like Ascension, use Google to securely manage their patient data, under strict privacy and security standards. They are the stewards of the data, and we provide services on their behalf.”

In other words, Google appears to be saying that the data stays with Ascension which uses the G-suite productivity tools to improve and enhance healthcare delivery via doctors and nurses. The blog also takes pains to explain that the data acquisition is HIPAA compliant and that Ascension’s data cannot be used for any other purpose than for providing services that Google is offering under the agreement with its business partner. “Patient data cannot and will not be combined with any Google consumer data,” says Tariq Shaukat in the blog.

However, this isn’t something that the industry is ready to accept immediately. TechCrunch.com quotes Mark Rothstein, a bio-ethicist and public health law scholar at the University of Louisville, to suggest that while Google is well within the HIPAA guidelines in working with patient data, the fact that it is using names and birthdates instead of a unique number isn’t kosher.

“The fact that this data is individually identifiable suggests that there’s an ultimate use where a person’s identity is going to be important,” says Rothstein. Which means Google have to build in a wall of anonymity for the data before it even considers using it to develop machine learning models that could then be sold to other interested enterprises.

Healthcare providers are right in mining data to develop personalised care and seek patterns that help detect medical conditions before the patient starts developing symptoms, but the trouble is that companies seeking such data from healthcare providers aren’t transparent about what else they could be using this data for.

In fact, Google itself had entered into a 10-year research partnership with Mayo Clinic, whereby the latter’s medical records were shifted to Google Cloud. Reporting about this move, Wired.com had wondered if the desire to bring AI into healthcare could eventually turn into a patient’s nightmare as she gets swamped with offers and treatments instead of a single doctor’s care.

At this point it time, the move appears unprecedented though a tad creepy. Like Clive Humby said, data is useful only if it is broken down and analysed. The challenge though is to understand whether enterprises plan to use it to improve healthcare or line their pockets further.

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