• Health minister meets with DeepMind over transfer of medical app to Google
  • Streams app developed with NHS patient data, under an arrangement later deemed unlawful
  • Comes as report calls for national guidelines to ensure the NHS gets “fair value” from selling patient data to industry

The government has sought a “full explanation” for why an app developed using NHS patient data has been transferred to tech giant Google, where it will receive less independent oversight.

In response to written Parliamentary questions, health minister Lord O’Shaughnessy said he had met with Google DeepMind to raise the issues.

He said: “We will seek a full explanation from Google about its plans, including why they have halted the independent review panel and how they intend to replace this function.

“We will work with regulators, including the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to ensure anything that happens as a result of the transfer of Streams respects patients’ privacy and complies fully with the law.”

The government had received assurances that no identifiable patient data has been transferred from Google DeepMind as a result of the change, he said.

It comes as a new report said that revenue from selling access to NHS patient data, which could generate an estimated £10bn a year for the service, was being put at risk by “a messy patchwork” of NHS partnerships with the private sector.

Last month, DeepMind announced it would transfer Streams, a digital health app it developed using NHS identifiable patient data, to its sibling company Google. Both DeepMind and Google are part of Alphabet.

This would mean Streams would no longer be scrutinised by an independent review panel set-up to provide oversight of DeepMind Health’s handling of patient data. The panel will be disbanded.

When announcing the change, Deepmind said the shift to Google would allow Streams to expand globally to become an “AI-powered assistant for nurses and doctors everywhere”.

Responding to questions from HSJ on Monday, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said Lord O’Shaughnessy met with DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman and clinical lead Dominic King on 3 December.

The spokesman said the minister was “content” with assurances provided at that meeting but declined to provide further details on what they were.

Responding to HSJ, Dr King said having an independent panel had been an important part of developing Streams in the UK but was “unlikely to be the right structure” as the focus becomes more global.

He said: “We value the need for scrutiny and accountability, and we are actively considering what would make sense in the context of a larger organisation when the transition of the Streams team takes place.”

None of the current contracts with the NHS trusts would move over to Google and any changes would require agreement from those trusts, he said.

“The patient data processed for Streams is, and will remain, controlled by the trust and cannot be used for any purpose other than the provision of direct patient care as specified in our agreements”, he said.

Streams was first developed as an acute kidney injury alert app at Royal Free London Hospital Foundation Trust in London but has since been picked up by three other NHS trusts and is being adapted for other clinical tasks.

In July last year, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that Royal Free’s transfer of 1.6 million NHS patient records to DeepMind to develop Streams was unlawful, as the patients were not told what was being done with their data. The agreement between DeepMind and Royal Free has since been modified and extended.

On Tuesday, public services think tank Reform published a report warning that NHS needed a strategy to capitalise on the value of its medical data.

The report was based on interviews with both industry and NHS leaders including Lord O’Shaughnessy. It said without a central strategy individual trusts or GP practices could strike data sharing deals that provide local benefits while being “detrimental at a national level”.

The report recommends the department establish a new independent unit to help the NHS “negotiate fair and proportionate partnerships” with digital technology companies.

DHSC has been consulting on a “code of conduct” for how the NHS interacts with “data-driven technologies”, including ways to ensure NHS doesn’t give access to patient data away too cheaply.

An updated code is scheduled to be published early next year.