“Google’s ‘Project Nightingale’ Gathers Personal Health Data on Millions of Americans,” the Wall Street Journal reported in today’s paper and on the WSJ.com website. The story started with the scenario that, “Search giant is amassing health records from Ascension facilities in 21 states; patients not yet informed.”

Here’s Ascension’s press release on the collaboration, described in the title as “healthcare transformation.” Note: this release was written after the Wall Street Journal published this story. And, according to the WSJ reporting, “Neither patients nor doctors have been notified. At least 150 Google employees already have access to much of the data on tens of millions of patients, according to a person familiar with the matter and the documents.”

The last paragraph of the press release states:

“All work related to Ascension’s engagement with Google is HIPAA compliant and underpinned by a robust data security and protection effort and adherence to Ascension’s strict requirements for data handling.”

While Google is a well-known brand and customer experience for most people, Ascension Health may not be as familiar an organization. Ascension is the second largest health system in the U.S., is faith-based, and as such has a mission to serve under-served communities. This is an important aspect to call out in the context of this project: as the press release explicitly states,

“Ascension will improve the experience of patients and consumers, as well as providers and associates, and advance its Mission of providing compassionate, personalized care to all, especially people living in poverty and those most vulnerable, through new capabilities,”

such as bolstering patient activation through engagement tools for self-care and health promotion, improving the caregiver experience with technology, and to boosting efficiency of the organization to conserve resources and leverage platforms to scale care.

You can read more details about this evolving situation in the WSJ article linked above, and other takes in tech, business, and social media that have begun to populate the interwebs.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  When PatientsLikeMe was acquired by UnitedHealthcare earlier this year, my friends-in-health-tech Susannah Fox, Lisa Suennen and I wrote a response to the acquisition and situation on each of our blogs, and on Medium. Here’s the link to our post here on Health Populi, from July 1, 2019.

The post was titled, “A Matter of Trust, Perception, Risk, and Uncertainty — the Big Issues Raised by the Acquisition of PatientsLikeMe and Other Patient Data Transactions.”

And now we are faced with another “patient data transaction” in the form of Google collaborating with Ascension. These four pillars Susannah, Lisa and I addressed in the context of PLM+UHG are also raised in today’s deal…with some nuances intriguing me around the public’s trust in the tech industry, as well as the nature and mission of a faith-based healthcare organization.

Let’s talk about Technology and Trust. Take a look at the bar chart data from a RealClear Politics poll conducted in April-May 2019. Responding to the question, “what industries and institutions will improve the quality of healthcare of Americans in 20 years?” consumers’ top response was the tech industry, recognizing by two-thirds of people. Note that hospitals garnered only about one-half of people in this study, and pharma and health plans fell to one-third of Americans’ responses to the question.

Now check out the third chart, which is a summary of the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2019 noting Americans’ trust in various industries. The most-trusted industry in this annual study was Technology, ranking far in front of other sectors — including healthcare, which ranks relatively lower for trust with telecomms, fashion, energy, and consumer goods.

What’s underneath that macro “healthcare” index number of 67 is a precipitous decline in the past year for Americans’ trust in hospitals, compared with biotech, pharma, consumer healthcare, and even health insurance — all of which grew in trust between 2018 and 2019, but not so with the hospital segment of U.S. health care.

Was this due to the growing experience and reporting of surprise medical bills? Out-of-network costs? The media coverage of hospitals suing patients for late payments?

What will the impact of health care providers working with tech companies on data-driven programs like Project Nightingale on the nature of patients’ trust with hospitals and doctors, versus tech companies?

And what is the responsibility of a faith-based provider in addressing health disparities, including overall health inequities, social determinants, AI biases, and digital divides? Is there a different, higher moral role for a faith-based healthcare provider versus a not-for-profit (non-faith based) or for-profit provider?

I’ve pointed to the Dignity Health campaign #HelloHumanKindness as a best practice communications and branding strategy for helping heal healthcare. In the case of patient data collaborations between Big (or small) Tech and health care providers, keeping the patients’ best interests central — transparent, on an opt-in basis, with the consumer-health citizen in control of her/his personal health information — should be a central tenet of these deals. We are beyond a crossroads now in U.S. health care for privacy legislation and work flows that prioritize patient rights over their data.