March 03, 2020

Warren, Blumenthal, Cassidy Press Giant Health Systems Provider Ascension on Patient Data-Sharing with Google

Senators Seek Additional Information on Google's Secret Program to Gather Millions of Americans' Personal Health Data

Letter to Ascension (PDF) | Response Letter from Google (PDF)

Washington, D.C. -- United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-La.) sent a letter to Ascension, the second largest health systems provider in the United States, regarding the company's information-sharing partnership with Google-also known as Project Nightingale-that provides Google with the health records of tens of millions of Americans. The senators' inquiry follows a November 2019 letter to Google in which they asked the tech giant to explain how and why it secretly collected the health data on millions of Americans without their clear consent. The lawmakers are also making public Google's response to their initial inquiry. 

"Because Google's response did not answer a number of our questions pertaining to Ascension's involvement, we are requesting additional details from Ascension to help us better understand how Project Nightingale protects the sensitive health information of American patients," the senators wrote in their letter to Ascension.

In November 2019, the Wall Street Journal disclosed Project Nightingale, a business partnership that begin in August 2018. Under the partnership, Ascension will reportedly rely on Google to manage the personal health information of roughly 50 million patients receiving care at 2,600 medical outlets in 21 states, providing Google with access to these patients' personal health records. According to a report from The Guardian, employees of Ascension raised concerns about the secrecy and security of the project, and at least one individual involved in the project expressed concerns that patients were not provided adequate notice of the data sharing. 

Alarmed by these reports, the senators wrote to Google in November 2019 requesting additional information from the company regarding its use and protection of personal data collected from Ascension, and Google responded in December 2019. However, the company did not provide much of the information requested by the senators and stated that a number of inquiries were best answered by Ascension.

"It is critical that lawmakers receive comprehensive information about Project Nightingale, which serves as a case study of Google's more extensive foray into electronic health records," the senators continued. "While improving the sharing, accessibility, and searchability of health data for providers could almost certainly lead to improvements in care, the role of Google in developing such a tool warrants scrutiny."

In their letter to Ascension, the senators asked the company for information that Google failed to provide in its response, including the "full and complete list of patient-level information" that Google is receiving from Ascension and the exact number of health records that Google had received under Project Nightingale. The lawmakers asked Ascension to respond to their inquiry by no later than March 23, 2020.