Privacy Concerns Over Google's Access to NHS Data

Peter Russell

May 05, 2016

Google owned artificial intelligence firm DeepMind has been given access to a reported 1.6 million NHS patient records as part of a project to help health professionals monitor patients with kidney disease.

Details of the data-sharing initiative have been published in the New Scientist journal which reports that it includes information about people who are HIV-positive, as well as information about drug overdoses and abortions.

The agreement covers 3 London hospitals run by the Royal Free NHS Trust - Barnet, Chase Farm and the Royal Free, and will allow the firm to access patient data from the last 5 years.

Kidney Injury App

DeepMind Health says it is collaborating with kidney specialists at the Royal Free and software engineers to design and pilot a mobile app for smartphones, called 'Streams', which will present timely information to help doctors and nurses detect cases of acute kidney injury (AKI).

AKI is a contributing factor in up to 20% of emergency hospital admissions, according to the NHS, which estimates that around 25% of cases are preventable.

Streams has the support of consultant nephrologist and associate medical director for patient safety at the Royal Free Hospital London, Dr Chris Laing. After overseeing initial pilot testing of the app, he said in a statement: "Using Streams meant I was able to review blood tests for patients at risk of AKI within seconds of them becoming available.

"I intervened earlier and was able to improve the care of over half the patients Streams identified in our pilot studies."

Privacy Concerns

However, DeepMind's access to patient data has alarmed privacy campaigners who want to know why it needs access to such a large batch of information to design a specific app.

Daniel Nesbitt, research director of Big Brother Watch tells us: "With more and more information being shared about us, it's becoming clear that in many cases members of the public simply don't know who has access to their information.

"All too often we see data being shared without the informed consent or proper understanding of those it will actually affect.

"It’s vital that patients are properly informed about any plans to share their personal information."


DeepMind says it respects patients' privacy and security and that NHS data is only processed in compliance with the law and according to the agreement with each individual hospital trust.

It also says that the data will never be linked with Google accounts, products or services.

The Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust says all patient data is encrypted when sent to DeepMind and while it is stored there.

It says a range of patient data is needed for building the app so that historical trends can be analysed more accurately.

The Royal Free says patients can opt out of having their records shared by contacting the trust's data protection officer.


Google DeepMind Health

The Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust

Daniel Nesbitt, Big Brother Watch