The UK’s National Data Guardian (NDG) has criticised the National Health Service (NHS) for its partnership with Google’s artificial intelligence company DeepMind. According to a letter published by Sky News yesterday, Google DeepMind has received personal health data from 1.6 million NHS patients on a legally inappropriate basis.
An investigation is currently being carried out by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), with the ICO telling Sky News that it is “close to conclusion.”
The letter from Dame Fiona Caldicott of the NDG was sent to NHS Royal Free Trust medical director Stephen Powis on February 20th. DeepMind was given access to NHS records in 2015 to test a smartphone app called Streams on the legal basis that it was offering "direct care."
According to Dame Fiona, she had informed Royal Free and DeepMind in December that she "did not believe that when the patient data was shared with Google DeepMind, implied consent for direct care was an appropriate legal basis".
This is because the purpose of the transfer was for testing the smartphone app, and not for the provision of direct care to patients. “My considered opinion therefore remains that it would not have been within the reasonable expectation of patients that their records would have been shared for this purpose," she wrote.
DeepMind is a British artificial intelligence company founded in September 2010. It was acquired by Google in 2014 for $400 million.
The artificial intelligence in healthcare market is poised for significant growth in the coming years. According to this market research report, the growing usage of big data in the healthcare industry and the imbalance between health workforce and patients is expected to drive growth of the market. However, reluctance among medical practitioners to adopt AI-based technologies and ambiguous regulatory guidelines for medical software are the major factors restraining the growth of the AI in healthcare market.
The app, named Streams, can detect if patients are suffering from acute kidney injuries or AKI. It has finished its testing phase and is currently in use in a number of hospitals run by London’s Royal Free NHS Trust. Both DeepMind and the Royal Free NHS Trust say feedback has been extremely positive so far. Dame Fiona was also quick to say that she wasn’t disputing the value of the app for patients.
"We're glad the NDG has said that further guidance would be useful to organisations which are undertaking work to test new technologies,” DeepMind said in response to the letter. "The data used to provide the app has always been strictly controlled by the Royal Free and has never been used for commercial purposes or combined with Google products, services or ads - and never will be."
The ICO says Dame Fiona's contribution has been taken into account and they will investigate whether the transfer was legal under the Data Protection Act.
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