What Do Data-Sharing Deals Mean for Patient Privacy?

A growing number of U.S. hospitals are making confidential data-sharing deals with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, which typically involve moving patient health data into cloud storage platforms managed by the tech giants. Among them are Partners HealthCare in Boston and Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania.

Each partnership seems to be governed by a different set of rules regarding what data are shared, according to a STAT investigation in which reporters reached out to nearly 50 hospital systems nationwide, data specialists, and tech executives. For example, the extent to which shared data is de-identified varies: Some arrangements only allow hospitals to access patient information, while others share data with tech company employees who are helping to analyze it and build new tools for the hospitals.

Data specialists noted that HIPAA was enacted in 1996, before most people began using the internet, so the privacy law’s protections don’t extend to all aspects of today’s partnerships between huge tech companies and digital health startups. Some agreements, like one between Google and the University of Chicago, have come under scrutiny for allegations that the level of detail included in the shared data left patients vulnerable to being identified.

Despite the uncertainty around patient privacy, hospital executives believe the shift to cloud-based storage is inevitable, due to the escalating volume of patient data collected and the desire to use artificial intelligence to improve patient care. Hospitals have spent tens of billions of dollars digitizing patient health records over the last 30 years, but most of those data are stored across countless servers and software systems. Streamlining this information would help institutions take advantage of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

People who spoke with STAT also predict that hospitals and health systems will increasingly enter agreements with tech companies and digital health startups following the recent release of new Trump administration rules making it easier to digitally share health information.

“I do think there’s room for appropriate collaboration with Big Tech … but you’ve got to do the work to make sure you and your patients feel good about that relationship,” said Erich Huang, MD, PhD, Chief Data Officer for Quality at Duke University Health System.

Sources: STAT, March 12, 2020.