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Google Builds AI-Powered Tools for Patient Care: Project Nightingale
Google’s Q2 announcement that it helps “healthcare organizations like Ascension improve the healthcare experience and outcomes” recently got it in hot water. Google has been accused of secretly collecting sensitive patient data across 21 states in the US on behalf of Ascension, with neither doctors nor patients being informed. While most of the criticism has been about data privacy – which is undoubtedly tremendously important – we should also pause and consider what Google intends this data for.
Project Nightingale, as it is known, builds on Google’s previous investments and partnerships in the healthcare space, including a recent acquisition of Fitbit. The objective is clear: back in 2017, Google wrote of machine learning (ML) being “mature enough to start accurately predicting medical events – such as whether patients will be hospitalized, how long they will stay, and whether their health is deteriorating despite treatment for conditions such as urinary tract infections, pneumonia, or heart failure.”
Using data from Ascension and its patients, Google is building – and testing – applications that use ML to predict patient needs and hence increase the provider’s readiness. It’s a sort of “AI assistant for nurses and doctors.” In its blog, Google writes about “Extending tools to doctors and nurses to improve care: We aim to provide tools that Ascension could use to support improvements in clinical quality and patient safety.”
Apps like these should indeed increase treatment quality, improve patient outcomes, save lives, and enhance provider efficiencies. And more healthcare data, from hospital systems but also from wearable devices – both personal devices such as Fitbit and devices used by hospitals – will lead to better predictions. And better predictions will lead to better diagnostics and better treatments.
But there’s more. Better predictions and better outcomes strengthen the provider’s market position. After all, who wants treatment from a mediocre hospital, doctor, lab, etc.? And by “provider,” we mean not just the provider of healthcare services but also the vendor providing the technology – in this case, Google.
Market position is synonymous with power. And AI is a flywheel technology that has the potential to shift power within companies, within industries, and even globally between countries, writes Ajay Agrawal, author of “Prediction Machines” and co-chair of this year’s conference on Machine Learning and the Market for Intelligence at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
In the medical domain, Agrawal says, AI could “consolidate and dramatically impact the structure and dynamics of the entire system.” And that’s the real goal of Google’s healthcare partnerships and acquisitions: to dominate healthcare, just like it dominates information access and advertisement markets.
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