Google signs deal with Ascension

The Google office in New York.
The Google office in New York.
Image: Karen van Rooyen

Alphabet Inc’s Google has signed its biggest cloud computing customer in health care to date, in a deal giving it access to data sets that could help it tune potentially lucrative artificial intelligence (AI) tools.

Google and Ascension, which operates 150 hospitals and more than 50 senior living facilities across the US, said the health care provider would move about data and analytics tools in its facilities to Google’s servers.

The deal was mentioned in Google’s July earnings call, but drew scrutiny on Monday after the Wall Street Journal reported that Google would gain personal health-related information of millions of Americans across 21 states.

The Journal reported that the data involved in the project includes lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalisation records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, along with patient names and dates of birth.

Google said in a blog post on Monday that patient data “cannot and will not be combined with any Google consumer data”.

“Ascension are the stewards of the data, and we provide services on their behalf,”  Google Cloud industry products and solutions president  Tariq Shaukat  wrote.

In a media release, Ascension said the partnership was  in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (Hippa) which safeguards medical information.

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian has made it a priority in his first year on the job to aggressively chase business from leaders in six industries, including health care.

The company previously touted smaller health care clients, such as the Colorado Centre for Personalised Medicine.

Though cloud storage is a business with thinning profit margins, Google Cloud has said it hopes to separate itself from larger rivals Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services with a superior slate of high-margin AI tools.

Ascension said it aims to use AI to help improve clinical effectiveness as well as patient safety.

Google’s blog post did not mention AI, but said the companies were in early testing on how to make better use of Ascension’s data.

Google has spent several years developing artificial intelligence to automatically analyse MRI scans and other patient data to identify diseases and make predictions aimed at improving outcomes and reducing cost.

The news follows an earlier announcement from Google that it would buy Fitbit Inc for $2.1bn ($31,2bn), aiming to enter the wearables segment and invest in digital health. — Reuters