A recently announced multi-year deal between HCA Healthcare and Google Cloud partners the two in an intricate dance across a tightrope, balancing the enormous benefits instant data can provide in treating patients against the enormous risks the sharing of that data poses to patient privacy.
HCA Healthcare operates in about 2,000 locations in 21 states. HCA Florida is one of the largest private health systems in the state and treats approximately five million patients each year in its 50 hospitals and 31 surgery centers.
Under the agreement with Google, HCA Healthcare will consolidate and store data from digital health records and internet-connected medical devices with Google. HCA Healthcare and Google engineers will develop algorithms to improve operating efficiency, monitor patients and guide doctors’ decisions.
“While protecting patient privacy and the security of data, HCA Healthcare uses information from our 32 million annual encounters to identify opportunities to improve clinical care and support its 93,000 nurses and 47,000 active and affiliated physicians. HCA Healthcare has … developed algorithm-informed decision support tools for caregivers and identified clinical practices that reduce infections and improve perinatal care. The partnership with Google Cloud is expected to enhance efforts by HCA Healthcare to continue to improve and develop new advanced decision support to promote quality, safety, and efficiency,” said HCA Healthcare officials in its announcement of the deal.
“Next-generation care demands data science-informed decision support so we can more sharply focus on safe, efficient and effective patient care,” said Sam Hazen, chief executive officer of HCA Healthcare. “We view partnerships with leading organizations, like Google Cloud, that share our passion for innovation and continual improvement as foundational to our efforts.”
The new data platform will provide HCA physicians, nurses, and non-clinical staff with workflow tools, analysis, and alerts that will improve the monitoring of patients and guide treatments.
Google Cloud Healthcare and Life Sciences Manager Chris Sakalosky told the Wall Street Journal in an article about the partnership with HCA Healthcare, “We want to push the boundaries of what the clinician can do in real-time with data.”
The partnership will also focus on improving data and insights for nonclinical areas within the health system, such as supply chain, human resources and physical plant operations.
“The cloud can be an accelerant for innovation in health, particularly in driving data interoperability, which is critical in streamlining operations and providing better quality of care to improve patient outcomes,” said Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian. “We are honored to partner with HCA Healthcare on this unique opportunity to be at the forefront of advancing care through the power of real-time data availability to support clinical and operational workflows.”
But with the exciting benefits of deploying such information technology comes the huge responsibility to protect the privacy of those patients.
HCA Healthcare and Google Cloud emphasized the importance of privacy and security as guiding principles throughout their partnership. According to the news release, access and use of patient data will be addressed through Google Cloud’s infrastructure alongside HCA’s security controls and processes.
Patient records would be stripped of identifying information before being shared with Google’s data scientists, and the health system will have control of access to the data, HCA Healthcare CMO Jonathan Perlin, MD, told the Journal.
According to HCA Healthcare, under the partnership, HCA Healthcare will use Google Cloud’s healthcare data offerings, including the Google Cloud Healthcare application programming interface and BigQuery, a database that supports healthcare data sharing standards Health Level Seven (HL7) and Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) as well as HIPAA compliance.
HL7 refers to a set of international standards for transfer of clinical and administrative data between software applications used by various healthcare providers. The HL7 standards are produced by Health Level Seven International, an international standards organization, and are adopted by other standards issuing bodies such as American National Standards Institute and International Organization for Standardization.
Going even further, Google addressed the partnership and privacy concerns with CNBC in an email saying, “This is deal between HCA and Google Cloud follows Google Cloud’s Enterprise Privacy Commitments. We do not process customer data to create ads profiles or improve Google Ads products. We do not sell customer data or service data to third parties.”
But, all that being said, there are concerns that privacy laws have not kept up with the technology.
Arthur Kaplan, a professor at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, told CNBC’s Shepard Smith he was concerned that, despite Google’s comments to the contrary, companies like Google, which do a lot of commercial advertising, could correlate the information coming out of the healthcare system and potentially sell it.
“Maybe they don’t have your name, but they sure enough can figure out what sub-group, sub-population might do best by getting advertised to you.”
But healthcare experts, like Mary Mayhew, President and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, believe hospitals can walk that tightrope.
“For many years, hospitals have been focused on leveraging the latest health information technology to benefit patient care that is focused on real time, comprehensive clinical data. As technology and software has advanced, physicians are better able to identify early risks associated with diabetes, heart conditions and other health concerns that allow for treatment plans that are preventative to reduce the progression of these disease. And, while digital information and analytics are enhancing patent treatment and hospital efficiency, protecting our patient data remains the top priority of hospital systems.”