Google, Ascension expand pilot of health record search tool

Google shared more details about a tool to search health records it developed with Ascension, called Care Studio. Photo: Screenshot taken from Google.

After striking a controversial collaboration with Google to build a tool to search health records, Ascension is making it available to more clinicians in an expanded pilot. Called Care Studio, the tool is designed to pull a patient’s health records into a central location, where physicians can search for certain terms, and more easily view lab results, medication and procedure orders, and progress notes.

Ascension first tested it with a small group of clinicians for data quality and safety, and now plans to roll out a broader pilot of the tool at its clinics in Nashville, Tennessee and Jacksonville, Florida. It will be used in a clinical setting, and roughly 250 clinicians will have access to the tool.

“As we get feedback from pilot clinicians, we will work with Google as they continue to enhance the usability and effectiveness of the tool and deliver additional feature,” Eduardo Conrado, Ascension’s executive vice president for strategy and innovations, wrote in a Tuesday blog post. “Once this period of quality assurance and improvement is complete, our goal is to make this clinical search tool available to all of our caregivers.”

The large nonprofit health system first began working with Google in 2018. As Google sought to compete with Amazon and Microsoft as a cloud provider, it began bringing on health systems — including St. Louis-based Ascension — as clients.

But the partnership went beyond just a simple cloud storage service — it also included a quiet effort to develop a tool to search health records.  The Wall Street Journal broke news of the agreement in late 2019, reporting that at least 150 Google employees had access to patient data, sparking an inquiry from lawmakers and privacy questions from patients.

Both Ascension and Google have repeatedly stated since then that the sharing of data was HIPAA compliant, as it was conducted through a business associate agreement, which allow outside companies that work with healthcare providers to share data as long as they meet certain requirements when it comes to protected health information. Google has emphasized that this data is not used for its search advertising business, and it stored separately.

In designing the search tool, Google Health used synthetic data, de-identified data, or data obtained for research purposes as approved by an institutional review board. A video demonstration shared Tuesday shows a simulated patient’s vitals from different health record systems plotted together on the same graph, and a list of all medications prescribed in inpatient and outpatient settings.

Although the tool might sound a bit like an electronic health record system feature, Google is not looking to replace EHRs. Conrado said it was an optional tool that “complements existing EHR systems and provides a single interface to search varied, and previously siloed, data systems and streams.”

The partnership is just one piece of Google’s broader healthcare ambitions. In the past year, Google Cloud struck agreements with insurer Highmark and invested in telehealth provider Amwell, with broad statements about a strategic technology collaboration. The company has also been working with Mayo Clinic on an expanding partnership that the companies hope to use to build a “factory” of AI solutions.

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