NHSX has denied a conflict of interest after a former founder of Google’s DeepMind was drafted in to advise the organisation on collecting patient data during Covid-19.

Mustafa Suleyman was approached by NHSX to help the organisation explore how best to collect patient data, including whether Google’s Cloud products were suitable for its data store project.

A handful of Google employees, as well as other tech companies, were approached to explore whether they could help in the response to the pandemic, Digital Health News understands.

Suleyman, alongside other Google employees, was provided an NHSX email but did not use the address, a spokesperson confirmed.

NHSX and NHS England in March revealed they were working with tech giants including Google to develop a data platform for better inform the national response to coronavirus.

The platform was intended to connect the government and other national organisations responsible for coordinating the UK’s response to “secure, reliable and timely data” in a bid to explore how to best use data, NHSX chief Matthew Gould wrote in a blog post at the time.

NHSX has denied a conflict of interest in drafting in Suleyman, despite Google’s involvement in developing the platform which brought together multiple NHS and social care data sets.

An NHSX spokesperson said: “Mustafa volunteered his time and expertise for free to help the NHS during the greatest public health threat in a century.  There is and never has been any conflict of interest.”

The added all volunteers are provided a temporary NHSX email which are then closed when work is complete.

Suleyman left DeepMind, Google’s flagship artificial intelligence company, in December 2019 to take up another position within Google’s team looking at the opportunities and impacts of applied artificial intelligence.

DeepMind and Google have ventured into health and the use of patient data with its Streams app and artificial intelligence solution at Moorfield’s Eye Hospital.

A Google spokesperson said Suleyman’s advisory role with NHSX did not proceed beyond initial exploration referred to in Gould’s blog post.

It comes as contractors at NHSX were warned they would be “asked to leave immediately” if conflicts of interest were unveiled.

In an email to staff in April Gould wrote: “If we found a conflict has been exploited for personal or corporate gain, the contractor or company would be asked to leave immediately.

The email, seen by Digital Health News, said the organisation needs to “carefully manage” the challenges that arise from working with private contractors.

The Stream’s patient data controversy

DeepMind unveiled its mobile app Streams in the UK in 2017. It is designed to help doctors spot patients at risk of developing acute kidney injury.

Streams was trialled at the Royal Free, but in July 2017 the UK’s data regulator found it did not comply with the Data Protection Act.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said the trust failed to inform 1.6m patients their data would be used as part of the DeepMind trial.

At the time, Suleyman apologised in an official statement and it was ruled the app could continue operating if the shortcomings were addressed.

Streams was taken over by the newly formed Google Health division in November 2018.