CDC eyes blockchain for public health surveillance

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CDC researchers are experimenting with blockchain technology to improve real-time disease surveillance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is exploring the use of blockchain to simplify information sharing about public health events between the agency and state and local health departments.

The encrypted ledger technology used by Bitcoin has generated significant interest from the healthcare industry, but few practical applications have surfaced so far. The technology is particularly intriguing for public health surveillance because it could allow various agencies to quickly share information to contain an infectious outbreak, Jim Nasr, chief software architect at the CDC’s Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology and Laboratory Services, told MIT Technology Review.

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Nasr is leading a team of technologists building a prototype using blockchain technology that could be in use sometime next year. The technology would help simplify complex data usage agreements and privacy regulations that handcuff real-time data sharing among public health agencies.

“Moving that data from one peer to another in a secure manner, in a compliant manner, and in a transparent manner—as quickly as possible—is a key part of the business model,” Nasr told MIT Technology Review.

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The CDC is undergoing significant IT upgrades, utilizing cloud-based applications to collect and analyze public health data and expanding its efforts to access information buried in EHRs, all of which are aimed at improving real-time disease surveillance.

The most promising healthcare application of blockchain technology in healthcare has come out of the MIT Media Lab, which tested its MedRec application at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. But some have questioned whether blockchain can live up to the hype, pointing to potential security vulnerabilities.