In letters to the respective CEOs, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked what data the health system is sharing with the technology company; how it is being used and shared; the extent to which employees at Google and its parent company Alphabet have access to this information; the extent to which patients were informed about the use and sharing of their data; and what steps are being taken to protect the privacy and security of patients' data.
The initiative, dubbed Project Nightingale, raises serious privacy concerns, committee leaders wrote.
"For example, longstanding questions related to Google's commitment to protecting the privacy of its own users' data raise serious concerns about whether Google can be a good steward of patients' personal health information," they wrote. "Additionally, despite the sensitivity of the information collected through Project Nightingale, reports indicate that employees across Google, including at its parent company, Alphabet, have access to, and the ability to download, the personal health information of Ascension's patients. Concerns have also been justifiably raised about Ascension's decision not to notify its patients that their information would be shared with Google or how their information would be used."
Ascension said in a statement that patient records will be used "only as necessary by a limited number of experts."
"Under no circumstances is Google allowed to use this data for other purposes or combined with any other Google consumer data," the company said.
Google said that it is happy to cooperate with any questions about the project.
"We believe Google's work with Ascension adheres to industry-wide regulations (including HIPAA) regarding patient data, and comes with strict guidance on data privacy, security, and usage," the company said in a statement.
Google launched Project Nightingale last year to reportedly move Ascension's patient data to Google's cloud-computing system to streamline information gathering.
In theory, Google could help analyze patients' lab results, medications, diagnoses and other data from Ascension, one of the largest health systems in the country. Google's artificial intelligence capabilities could potentially flag missteps or care gaps and better direct treatment, diagnostic tests or request certain physicians.
The project, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, sparked public outcry as well as a federal probe. While industry experts relayed that this type of data exchange is common, some pointed to Google's checkered history with consumers' information.