The Royal Free NHS Trust failed to comply with the Data Protection Act when sharing the confidential details of 1.6 million NHS patients with a subsidiary company of Google, ruled the Information Commissioner (ICO), an independent authority set up to deal with information issues.

This data was shared without patient consent in an attempt to aid technological advances to boost patient care and improve diagnosis of those suffering with Acute Kidney Injury (AKI) – a condition that prevents the kidneys from working effectively.

The Royal Free London NHS Trust initially passed on this patient data in September 2015 to DeepMind, Google’s artificial intelligence company which is developing an app targeted at the medical profession named Streams.

This app aims to assist medical professionals in preventing Acute Kidney Injury (AKI) as well as revolutionizing treatment of the condition. Streams is a means of viewing patient data which will hopefully aid decision making on the most appropriate and effective treatment of Acute Kidney Injury (AKI) along with other conditions.

The Royal Free says that this patient information was provided to DeepMind in order for the company to test the app with real-life data to assist with the development of the app in the hope that this would help treat patients with Acute Kidney Injury (AKI).

AKI is a huge issue in the UK that affects around 30% of all patients in critical care suffer from the effects of this condition and it is responsible for 40,000 deaths in the UK alone each year. The scale of this issue in the UK and the impact on suffers has no doubt led to the NHS Trust to search for any possible solution to the problem.

Patients may be skeptical as to the benefits of using an app in healthcare and how it could be utilized by medical practitioners to improve service. It is claimed that the information gathered by Streams will help practitioners and patients alike in the management of Acute Kidney Injury as well as other conditions in the future as well as boost the effectiveness of frontline healthcare delivery.

It is hoped that the integration of Streams in the treatment of conditions including Acute Kidney Injury will improve response times and ultimately save lives.

An expert at medical negligence firm Patient Claim Line explains that data collated by Streams could be key if an incident occurs.

The information gathered by Streams can be used to monitor the performance of entire organizations or departments as well as individual practitioners, advances that Patient Claim Line believes would be a vital step forward in the investigation of accidents. This information could be used to ensure that any failure of management or healthcare delivery processes are flagged and can be overhauled to avoid repeat incidents.

Although conditions such as AKI are clearly a huge problem for both patients and the NHS that urgently needs addressing, there are naturally concerns that a third party potentially has access to confidential data. Many patients will be more worried that this information is possibly sitting on Google servers and question whether this will have an impact on their long-term safety.

Both Google and the NHS have been targeted by cyber-attacks in the past, such as the May 2017 attack on the NHS which hit around 40 organisations and there have been several instances of hackings of Google accounts. This history of data breaches fact does not inspire confidence that the security of this personal data can guaranteed.  

DeepMind has made it explicitly clear that it has not yet integrated artificial intelligence into its system, although it does have plans to do so in the future.

The future use of artificial intelligence in healthcare will raise further questions around the safeguarding issues of patient data, such as which organisations or groups will have access to this information. It is believed that the introduction of artificial intelligence could pinpoint those who are more susceptible to suffer from certain conditions, which could then lead to preventative treatment and help save lives.