The recent controversy over Google DeepMind and the Royal Free NHS Trust raises interesting issues around Public Sector data usage. Here we discuss the issues and a potential solution.

Marrying Tech Giants with public puppies

The Department of Health is under huge pressure to make cuts. We very much doubt that anyone has escaped hearing about the Junior Doctors strike for example. Under pressure to ramp up its efficiencies, a key part of this is executing an effective digital and technology strategy. Examples have been the ‘Cloud First Policy’ and the widening of the Government Digital Services ‘G-Cloud’ framework. However, NHS Trusts have begun to go it alone and partnering with a tech giant on a project seems like an obvious win. Why wouldn’t it be? Access to technological innovations, tons of cash and some of the smartest tech people on the planet. This brings us to the ongoing situation with Google’s DeepMind and the Royal Free NHS Trust.

Google’s new healthcare arm “DeepMind Health” is an artificial intelligence company that has developed an app named ‘Streams’ which “presents timely information that helps nurses and doctors detect cases of acute kidney injury.” Their recent partnership with the Royal Free has ruffled more than a few feathers and raised some significant questions regarding the marrying of tech and health which we discuss here.

What’s the issue?

A recent New Scientist report detailed the agreement between Google and the Royal Free. It revealed Google were to be allowed access to “logs of day-to-day hospital activity, such as records of the location and status of patients – as well as who visits them and when”. The article raised an interesting point around the value of data to a company like Google. Google maintain that the trials done under DeepMind are not of a commercial nature, and are being done for free, however the data being used will be worth a huge amount to Google, even if it can’t be used forever.

For the NHS to make these clinical advancements through technology, the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and others, will have a role to play. Their technologies are so deeply entrenched in our day-to-day lives that arguably the NHS will have to work with them, like it or not. Further, they will be unwilling to let an industry function out of their influence and outside of their technology. The public were protective over banking for some time but think about Android’s venture into the contactless payments space with Android Pay – hitting the UK this year. Similar ventures will begin to creep into the healthcare space.

But why is this such a bad thing? Speeding up the payment process at your local supermarket seems like a great idea, so why should speeding up the rate at which a clinician has access to data be an issue?

Transparency has always been at the forefront of the counter arguments. Tech giants need to make sure their intentions are clear and transparency is required to get the public on board. The public are quite rightly, protective both of the NHS and of their personal health data.

In the context of the DeepMind project, further investigation from the New Scientist outlined:

  • Google and the Royal Free have neither applied for nor obtained ethical approval for handling patient data and,
  • Google has not registered its Streams app as a medical device with the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency

As a result, Google are now under investigation by The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

What’s the lesson?

In this particular case, Google and the Royal Free have made a few key mistakes. They weren’t clear on who had access to what and for how long. Most people want to see common clinical issues tackled and transparency would have allowed experts to advise on the regulations to follow.

For Trusts and tech giants looking to partner, the DeepMind-Royal Free controversy shines a light on best practice moving forward. Lessons learnt for future ventures between tech giants and the Public Sector are obvious; take the pulse of the public, consider expert advice and approach tech giants with caution.

A final word from 4D

At 4D we’re passionate about doing our bit to support the NHS tech initiatives in full consultation with all relevant parties. We’re already supporting the NHS through our cloud provision for the ‘Find and Treat’ mobile TB scanning units but we’re keen to do more. If you’re looking for a G-Cloud registered cloud provider with relevant experience, accreditations and a passion for healthcare technology we’d love to talk. Call us on 020 3962 0399.



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Various reports on DeepMind partnership, 24 - 25/02/2016:

New Scientist start digging, 29/04/2016:

Guardian U-turn on DeepMind, 4/05/2016:

New Scientist discovery of non-compliance, 16/05/2016:

Google under investigation, 18/05/2016: