Google has now absorbed the health division of DeepMind, the UK-based artificial intelligence (AI) company it acquired in 2014, sparking concerns over the implications for patient data privacy.

Responsibility for DeepMind’s work with the London AI group at large will now be transferred to the newly established Google Health UK unit.

The plans for the transfer of DeepMind Health to Google were announced in November 2018. At the same time, Google dissolved its independent review panel of academic and data government experts who has been appointed by DeepMind to monitor its medical data use. Google has announced no plans to reinstate a similar panel of publish its contracts with the NHS, as DeepMind had done.

The move has been considered controversial due to DeepMind’s historic handling of sensitive NHS data. In 2016, Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust was found to be providing DeepMind with data on 1.6 million British patients without their consent during the development process of its AI-powered Streams app, which helps doctors monitor patients with severe kidney conditions.

The Information Commissioner’s Office ruled this to be unlawful and Royal Free London was required to establish a proper legal basis for future data processing and complete a privacy impact assessment. It also had to conduct an independent audit of patient data processing into Streams during the data breach period.

DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman, who recently took a leave of absence from the company, said: “DeepMind operates autonomously from Google, and we’ve been clear from the outset that at no stage will patient data ever be linked or associated with Google accounts, products or services.”

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Five of the six NHS Trusts previously funnelling data into Steams’ development have now chosen to sign new deals with Google – Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Royal Free London, Imperial College and Taunton and Somerset NHS Trust.

Yeovil District Hospital NHS, which previously worked with DeepMind, has declined to continue the partnership. Taunton and Somerset said while it will continue to work with Google until 2022 it will not be using the Streams app any more.

The medical data that would be shared with Google includes medical history, diagnoses, treatment dates and ethnic origin.

Healthcare privacy advocacy group MedConfidental coordinator Phil Booth said: “If NHS bodies are signing contracts to share large amounts of patient medical history and data with foreign corporations, then we the patients, the public, have to know what’s being done is fully consensual, safe and transparent.

“The regulatory regime has been slow to act in this country, and has yet to demonstrate the will to enforce the law on such breaches.”