Google DeepMind knows you well enough to save your life

The UK's National Health Service cuts a deal with the AI company to scan medical records to find at-risk patients.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read

DeepMind wants to help doctors identify kidney problems earlier using its Streams app.


Technology is failing hospital patients. It's something DeepMind is determined to fix, but its solution is proving controversial.

The UK-based artificial intelligence company, owned by Google parent company Alphabet, has agreed to a five-year partnership with a group of London hospitals run by the UK's state-run National Health Service to better manage patient care starting in 2017.

Together the company and the hospitals, known collectively as the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, will use an AI-based phone app called Streams to help doctors predict when patients are at risk of developing acute kidney injury (AKI). In the future, it could also be used to spot other life-threatening conditions such as sepsis, liver dysfunction and general organ failure.

But there's a catch.

In order to predict AKI and other conditions, DeepMind requires access to vast swaths of patient data collected by the NHS, including information about HIV status, recorded overdoses and abortions. It also includes the results of some pathology and radiology tests.

The tool could prove invaluable to doctors, but not everyone is happy about the mass collection of medical records, which is conducted without the knowledge or explicit consent of most patients.

"Our concern is that Google gets data on every patient who has attended the hospital in the last five years and they're getting a monthly report of data on every patient who was in the hospital, but may now have left, never to return," said Phil Booth, coordinator of privacy nonprofit medConfidential, in a statement Tuesday.

Streams was developed over the past year as part of a research program that DeepMind first acknowledged back in February. It works by alerting physicians when test results show a patient could be about to develop AKI. Instead of taking hours for doctors to be alerted to an at-risk patient, Streams should ensure they know within a matter of seconds, according to DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman.

"By freeing up clinicians' time from juggling multiple pager, desktop-based and paper systems, it should redirect over half a million hours per year away from admin and towards direct patient care at the Royal Free alone," he wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

When the full details of the Streams program were uncovered in April, the project sparked controversy due to the fact that medical data belonging to 1.6 million London patients was being passed to DeepMind. The company is only using kidney data in its program, but receives other health information from the hospitals because of the way the forms are structured.

DeepMind has said that patient data will always be processed in England and will never be linked or associated with Google accounts. But the data-sharing agreement has still raised concerns over why DeepMind should have access to such large NHS datasets.

"As DeepMind was developing this app in partnership with clinicians, they have told us that they need access to a historical patient information to make an appropriate diagnosis -- prior blood test results, other results that relate to pre-existing medical conditions, and other facts about a patient's medical state," said a spokesman for DeepMind.

The Streams project has also attracted the attention of regulators. The Information Commissioner's Office, the UK's data watchdog, is currently conducting an "ongoing" investigation into the sharing of data between the Royal Free NHS Trust and DeepMind.

"We are working with the National Data Guardian to ensure the project complies with the Data Protection Act," said an ICO spokeswoman in a statement. "We've been in contact with the Royal Free and DeepMind who have provided information about the development of the Streams app."

DeepMind has tried to address some concerns over patient data.

"The partnership will also introduce an unprecedented level of data security and audit," said Suleyman. It's doing this by adding features to log any time data is accessed. That log will be reviewed by the Royal Free and nine independent health reviewers DeepMind has appointed.

"We're very proud of our work with the Royal Free on both the technical and governance sides, and have been working with trusts and regulatory bodies to obtain all approvals for any work we undertake," said a DeepMind spokesman. "Our data centres have passed NHS audits, and we've also registered our app with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)."

NHS patients who want to opt out of having their data collected and passed to third parties can write to their GPs.

Royal Free NHS Trust didn't respond to a request for comment.