A deal between Royal Free trust and Google’s artificial intelligence subsidiary DeepMind, has been criticised in an academic paper for its lack of transparency regarding its use of patient data.
The two companies first started working together in 2016 on a project that would help patients suffering from acute kidney injury (AKI). The project involved the creation of an app called Streams, which would use patient data to help clinicians monitor patients with AKI.
However, the project’s use of patient data has been criticised by Cambridge University’s Julia Powles and The Economist’s Hal Hodson in their paper – Google DeepMind and healthcare in an age of algorithms.
The paper questions why the project was given access to millions of NHS patient data, without their consent. Medical information is allowed to be used by third-parties if the data is intended to be used for direct care – an activity which is concerned with preventing, investigating and treating an illness, as well as alleviating the suffering of an individual.
Powles and Hodson acknowledge that DeepMind and Royal Free were justified in using medical data of patients with AKI. However, the paper states that because the project had access to a much broader dataset, including details of HIV-positive patients, broken bones, abortions and more, “consent (explicit or implied) and notice were lacking”.
DeepMind and Royal Free responded to the paper saying: “This paper completely misrepresents the reality of how the NHS uses technology to process data. It makes a series of significant factual and analytical errors, assuming that this kind of data agreement is unprecedented. In fact, every trust in the country uses IT systems to help clinicians access current and historic information about patients, under the same legal and regulatory regime.”
Responding, Powles and Hodson said: “None of the allegations of misunderstanding and incorrectness are substantiated. The paper went through multiple rounds of internal and external review, including by experts in data protection law. Scrutiny by public institutions is also ongoing, and it is telling that the agreement was voluntarily remade by the parties only halfway through its proposed two-year term. We would welcome an on-record response from Royal Free and DeepMind that addresses the specific issues of fact we lay out in the study.”
The project is currently being investigated by the Information Commissioner’s Office and (ICO) and The National Data Guardian (NDG).