Analysis | Google takes over DeepMind Health’s Streams, amid controversy
DeepMind Health Streams
Credit: DeepMind

Analysis | Google takes over DeepMind Health’s Streams, amid controversy

DeepMind Health, and its Streams app, are being brought under the direct control of Google, in a move that fuels past controversies around patient data privacy.

The DeepMind Health division will operate within Google Health, though the Streams team will remain in London.

DeepMind was acquired by Google in 2014, with a mission to bring DeepMind’s bleeding edge healthcare technology to millions of users worldwide.

A DeepMind blog post explains why the company is now being integrated more closely with Google:

Our vision is for Streams to now become an AI-powered assistant for nurses and doctors everywhere – combining the best algorithms with intuitive design, all backed up by rigorous evidence.

“The team working within Google, alongside brilliant colleagues from across the organisation, will help make this vision a reality.”

What is DeepMind Streams?

Streams is a secure mobile phone app that aims to address what clinicians call ‘failure to rescue’ – when the right nurse or doctor doesn’t get to the right patient in time.

The app brings together important medical information, like patients’ blood test results, in one place, allowing clinicians to spot serious issues on the move.

The app can send smartphone alerts to the right clinician to help, along with information about previous conditions, so they can make an immediate diagnosis.

Streams can also allow clinicians to instantly review their patients’ vital signs, like their heart rate and their blood pressure, as well as to record these observations into the app. This is made possible by integrating different types of data and test results from a range of existing IT systems used by the hospital.

Within a few weeks of Streams being deployed at the Royal Free, nurses said that it was saving them up to two hours each day. A peer-reviewed service evaluation to measure the overall impact will follow.

The app is currently only in use at the Royal Free but will soon be made available to clinicians at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, Taunton and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust and Yeovil District Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

Internet of Business says

In the takeover announcement, DeepMind stressed, “information governance and safety remain our top priorities. Patient data remains under our partners’ strict control, and all decisions about its use will continue to lie with them.”

This is a company still working to shake the controversy it faced in 2016, when it signed a deal with the NHS to obtain patient data to test its Streams medical analytics app – a move that was subsequently deemed to be illegal.

We recently reported that a panel of independent reviewers, commissioned by DeepMind Health itself, has warned that the company could exert “excessive monopoly power” in the healthcare and medical data space.

Moving DeepMind under Google’s direct control will only exacerbate this problem, and heighten fears around data privacy.

In his forward to the report, outgoing chair Dr Julian Huppert said:

We have been clear from the outset that ‘good enough’ is not good enough for a company with such a close relationship to Google, a company which already reaches deep into all our lives.

“The issues of privacy in a digital age are if anything, of greater concern now, than they were a year ago and the public’s view of the tech giants has shifted substantially.”

Where a “close relationship” once raised concerns, direct control may raise hackles. The importance of data privacy in healthcare is, perhaps, second only to finance.

In the light of which, it seems a surprising decision for a company in such a sensitive position. It is in Google’s best interests to foster a sense of openness and trustworthiness in the public eye. Therefore, there must have been strong business reasons for taking over DeepMind.

With Google’s business largely built on the value of data, there will inevitably be questions around what Google plans to do with the information collected by Streams and other DeepMind projects.

However, for all the controversy, DeepMind’s work is yielding impressive results. As well as its Streams app, the company’s use of AI for diagnostic purposes has been hugely successful.

Just this week, DeepMind announced the findings of the first phase of their partnership with Moorfields Eye Hospital, on sight-threatening eye disease.

The findings, published online in Nature Medicine, reveal an AI system that can quickly interpret eye scans with striking accuracy and correctly recommend how patients should be referred for treatment for over 50 sight-threatening eye diseases, as accurately as expert doctors.

Google certainly has the vision, but does it have the transparency to convince healthcare providers and patients that its solutions will protect both lives and data?