The fight for our health data

5 min read

Georgia Iacovou

05 Dec 2019

Health data is arguably the most valuable data we have — which is why companies want it

We all know that there’s a lot of money in health, because humans have frail, sensitive bodies which are prone to disease and ageing — all of us need to access healthcare at various stages all through our lives.

But what kind of world are we walking into when Google suddenly becomes your gateway to healthcare? Can a large tech company replace a hospital or doctors office?

Should Google be your doctor?

Google, like others, has very recently made significant moves to cement its place in the so-called ‘healthcare market’. They acquired Fitbit, which in turn gave them access to the health data of over 28 million users — a move which is at once clever and terrifying.

health illustrations

☝️ This acquisition is only the half of it. Here’s what else Google are up to…

Don’t let Fitbit distract you from what else Google are working on: Project Nightingale sees them getting into bed with Ascension, who are the biggest healthcare company in the USA. Many are confused by this project codename but I would hazard that’s named for the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale.

Why are they working with Ascension?

Has this partnership upset anyone yet?

🏥💸 How Google want to commodify this health data: by making healthcare search tools, and by making an AI that could suggest (recommend? Predict?) treatments. As usual this leaves us in murky waters.

how patient search might look, powered by google This is how patient search tools might look — much like the Google Search that we know

🤷🏻‍♀️None of it matters if we can’t trust Google.

Even if Google do manage to fabricate a sprawling utopia of healthcare products, it would mean entrusting them with the most valuable and sensitive data with have about ourselves. Remember their track record:

You almost can’t blame DeepMind for doing this — what they wanted to achieve was only possible with the power and resources that big tech company like Google has. This is precisely the issue when you have the universe of user data centralised to just a handful of companies.

“One of the reasons for joining forces with Google in 2014 was the opportunity to use Google’s scale and experience in building billion-user products to bring our breakthroughs more rapidly to the wider world.” Demis Hassabis, DeepMind.

A company with all the tools and resources you need to make any organisation run like a well-oiled machine — such as Google — could help bring healthcare into the future. Or just… present day. In theory, using AI to diagnose and treat patients is a great idea. There would be less human error and bias.

Imagine the potential impact of machine error as it automates important decisions a hundred times faster than a human medical professional.

In reality the prospect of AI supporting healthcare in any way is galling at best. Human error is one thing, but imagine the potential impact of machine error as it automates important decisions a hundred times faster than a human medical professional. This is issue is explored in depth in Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks. Here she talks about a ‘modernised’ health benefits system in the US state of Indiana:

“Each month the number of verification documents that vanished — were not attached properly to digital case files in a process called ‘indexing’ — rose exponentially. […] By February 2009, nearly 283,000 documents had disappeared, an increase of 2,473 percent” Virgina Eubanks, Automating Inequality

At the end of the day, it’s structures like this that give us less autonomy and control over the most important data we have. And it’s not just Google: Amazon, Facebook and Apple (with it’s health app in tandem with Apple Watch) are also making strides in healthcare.

Anouk Ruhaak, a data governance expert and Mozilla fellow, shines a ray of hope on all this in this recent piece, suggesting that data trusts could be a viable solution for such a problem.

“Trading highly sensitive data for the uncertain promise of better healthcare is a Faustian bargain and one we should not have to make. There is no reason why we cannot make the health benefits of our data available to society at large, without surrendering control over our privacy in the process.” Anouk Ruhaak, Mozilla.

👉 In conclusion: Google (and arguably, anyone else) should not be profiting off of your health, and it’s clear that we need radical change over how health data is governed. So after reading this ask yourself: should Google be your doctor?

the author

Georgia Iacovou

Content Writer