Caldicott warns of ‘inappropriate’ transfer of 1.6m patient records

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The transfer of 1.6 million patient records to Google’s DeepMind Health company has an ‘inappropriate legal basis’, says the UK’s national data guardian.

In a letter leaked to Sky News, Dame Fiona Caldicott warned the Royal Free hospital in London, the partner hospital for Google’s company, that the transfer of patient records had not been for ‘direct care’ as they were initially used to test the Streams health app for acute kidney injury diagnosis.

She wrote: ‘Given that Streams was going through testing and therefore could not be relied up [sic] for patient care, any role the application might have played in supporting the provision of direct care would have been limited and secondary to the purpose of the data transfer.’

Trusts are allowed to transfer data for purposes of direct care, but all other reasons require approval from regulators.

The Royal Free and DeepMind say the provision of direct care using an app depends on a preliminary testing phase.

A DeepMind spokesperson said: ‘Safety testing is essential across the NHS, and no hospital would turn a new service live without testing it first.’

Commenting on the leaked letter, a spokesperson from the Royal Free said: ‘Real patient data is routinely used in the NHS to check new systems are working properly before turning them fully live. No responsible hospital would ever deploy a system that hadn’t been thoroughly tested. The NHS remained in full control of all patient data throughout.’

The hospital added that the app was developed ‘in close collaboration with clinicians’ and is now being used at the Royal Free to help provide ‘better, faster care’ to patients.

Saffron Cordery, Director Policy and Strategy at NHS Providers, said access to clinical data is needed to carry out proper testing of technologies such as Streams.

But Julia Powles, a researcher at New York’s Cornell University, said she was concerned that DeepMind and the Royal Free ‘are trying to remake the entire foundations of medical information governance’.

The Information Commissioner’s Office is carrying out an ongoing investigation into the sharing of patient information between the Royal Free and DeepMind.

An ICO spokesperson said: ‘We continue to work with the national data guardian and have been in regular contact with the Royal Free and DeepMind who have provided information about the development of the Streams app.’