The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has become increasingly involved in the pursuit of blockchain-powered healthcare solutions this year. First, they began independently exploring several blockchain-based proofs of concept (POCs) to make health data management more efficient and secure in moments of crisis, such as a pandemic. Next, they embarked on a partnership with IBM Watson Health to expand their blockchain-based POCs. Together with the FDA’s separate blockchain-based projects, which are also in conjunction with Watson Health, there is clearly a move this year toward greater federal involvement in the adoption of blockchain technology in the health sector.
The CDC’s exploration of the blockchain
A recent article in the MIT Technology Review explains that the CDC has been actively exploring several blockchain-based POCs this year in order to “help public health workers respond faster to a crisis,” such as a pandemic. Currently, local health workers can use the CDC’s mobile app to log patient information and work out who should receive specific medications. However, the CDC’s current application continues to encounter a stumbling block when it comes to finding an efficient way for the CDC to store personal patient information while also conforming to strict federal privacy regulations. Jim Nasr of the CDC’s Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology and Laboratory Services, where he serves as the chief software architect, sees the blockchain as a potential solution to the problem, enabling the CDC “to store and share that data much faster while complying with security and privacy laws.” Furthermore, blockchain technology is inherently built to support the peer-to-peer data model found in the public health sector.
Current project status
The CDC aims to move from the POC phase to the real-world application phase in 2018. Meanwhile, a few challenges remain before the federal institute can go live with a blockchain-powered solution. The CDC team still needs to work out who will own the computer network where the health data will live; who will have read/write permissions; and how the CDC and others will manage IDs.
New partnership with IBM Watson Health
On October 24th, IBM Watson Health announced that they had teamed up with the CDC to explore the benefits of a blockchain-powered solution for collecting, sharing and managing healthcare data. IBM Watson Health sees the CDC partnership as building upon their current collaboration with the FDA as IBM further expands their efforts to bring about greater blockchain adoption. IBM’s chief science officer, Shahram Ebadollahi, and chief health officer, Kyu Rhee, emphasized that the research partnership with the CDC will focus on the connection between the blockchain and AI. According to Ebadollahi and Rhee, the primary role of the blockchain in POCs surrounding healthcare data is enhanced security. A properly implemented blockchain-based system “offers a level of security that will reassure all the various stakeholders in healthcare,” including patients, doctors and insurers. The role of AI, on the other hand, is insight. While the blockchain will securely collect and store the data, AI will “extract insights” from it.
Although the CDC and IBM have not yet released further details on their blockchain-powered POCs, they emphasized that further details will soon follow.
Federal blockchain adoption and healthcare’s future
Private sector startups will undoubtedly play an important role in increasing adoption of blockchain technology in the healthcare space. However, public sector institutes and agencies, such as the CDC and the FDA, are clearly going to play a critical role as well. In fact, because sensitive healthcare data is often collected and governed by federal organizations, blockchain adoption in the healthcare sector may be uniquely dependent on federal adoption to succeed.