Humana, UnitedHealthcare launch blockchain pilot focused on provider directories

Several major health insurers have teamed up to launch a pilot project using blockchain technology to improve the accuracy of provider demographic data.

Humana, UnitedHealthcare and Optum are overseeing the new pilot along with the national lab testing company Quest Diagnostics and MultiPlan, which provides cost-management solutions to health insurers.

The program will initially focus on using the distributed ledger technology to improve the quality of provider demographic data, an issue the organizations believe contributes an estimated $2.1 billion in administrative costs each year.

“Our effort to improve the quality of care provider data is a pragmatic and potentially effective way to leverage technology to help those we serve,” Mike Jacobs, a senior distinguished engineer at Optum, said in an announcement. “We envision the possibility of effecting change at scale—supporting our mission of helping make the health system work better for everyone.”

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There’s been significant hype around the use of blockchain technology to facilitate secure data exchange in healthcare, but there have been few practical applications. An application known as MedRec, created by researchers at MIT Media Lab, was recognized in 2016 by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) as part of a blockchain challenge. The technology was pilot-tested at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. But there have been few real-world applications of the technology in healthcare.

Despite some concerns that the coding structure of blockchain technology is susceptible to vulnerabilities, a recent survey showed a strong interest among health insurers. In fact, 70% of payers said they plan to integrate blockchain into their systems by the beginning of next year.

Quest Diagnostics' Chief Information Officer Lidia Fonseca, who calls blockchain a “promising enabler” for data exchange, says the partnership came together after several months of discussions. Quest Diagnostics has long-standing relationships with Humana and Optum, and over time the three companies became convinced blockchain could solve some of their interoperability problems.

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“We operate on a national level; we see a third of Americans every year,” she told FierceHealthcare. “If we can exchange information in a better way and be able to access it in a timely fashion, it will drive better decisions.

The group has not selected a technology partner yet, although Fonseca said they are in the process of narrowing down their selection from a group of four companies.

She adds that the partnership has “a very long list” of use cases but decided that streamlining provider data is a manageable initial task with the potential to put a huge dent in back-end administrative tasks. By the end of the seven-month pilot—which includes specific goals to ensure data are accurate, complete and up-to-date—the organizations expect they’ll have a use case to drive other blockchain-focused pilots.

“The quality and completeness of data will be the proof,” she says.