Blockchain could save healthcare from interoperability woes

Emerging technology—coupled with new IT regulations and Department of Health and Human Services leadership that is keen on improving interoperability while reducing documentation burdens—could give blockchain technology the boost it needs to finally integrate into healthcare.

Although blockchain technology offers tremendous promise regarding both data security and accessibility, practical solutions have yet to make a breakthrough in healthcare. But since interoperability continues to be a chief concern throughout the industry, this may be the year blockchain finally makes its debut in a meaningful way.

“Now is probably the right time in our history to take a fresh approach to data sharing in healthcare,” John Halamka, chief information officer at Boston-based Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center told Wired.

Beth Israel has already tested a blockchain pilot project called MedRec which emerged as one of 15 winners recognized by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) last year. Developed by researchers at MIT Media Lab, MedRec successfully tracked patient information like lab work and prescriptions, according to Wired, and researchers have lined up additional pilot projects with larger systems.

MIT isn’t the only one exploring this technology. Last month, IBM Watson Health announced the company had signed onto a research initiative with the FDA “aimed at defining a secure, efficient and scalable exchange of health data using blockchain technology.”

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Rep. Tom Price, the nominee for HHS secretary, has made it clear he is “skeptical about electronic health records,” arguing that federal EHR requirements have turn doctors into “data entry clerks.” But he also said EHRs are valuable for patients and the government has a role to play when it comes to facilitating interoperability.

Seamless data exchange is a major focus of the 21st Century Cures Act, and Francis Collins, the National Institutes of Health director, has praised the law for helping his organization improve data sharing capabilities. However, President Trump’s regulatory freeze has already delayed several rules tied to the ONC’s EHR reporting program.

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ONC director Steven Posnack, who will be speaking at the upcoming HIMSS conference, recently told Health Data Management he expects blockchain to take on a bigger role in the coming year given the focus on interoperability and emerging technologies. 

“There could be prototypes, pilots, proofs of concepts and limited deployments likely in payment and security contexts,” he said.