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IBM Watson, FDA Collaborate on Healthcare Blockchain Research

IBM Watson Health and the FDA collaborate to assess the uses of blockchain technology in health IT infrastructure.

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

IBM Watson Health and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have signed a collaborative research agreement with the goal of applying blockchain technology to define secure, efficient, and scalable health data exchange.

IBM Watson and FDA partner for healthcare blockchain research

IBM and the FDA will evaluate the use of blockchain technology in the exchange of owner-mediated data from sources including electronic medical records (EHRs), clinical trials, genomic data, and health data collected from mobile devices such as wearables and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Blockchain is the exchange of information between nodes (e.g., users, organizations) via a shared database without the regulation of a third party controlling the data through a single silo and leads to the creation of a trusted history of transactions between organizations sharing data.

Each transaction between organizations consists of a block which holds the data from the current transaction along with a hash linking back to the previous transaction, thus creating a chain. Every transaction is documented and users cannot go back and alter past data.

While the research will primarily focus on oncology-related data, the observation of blockchain being used for EHR and clinical data will likely shed light on other implementations of blockchain technology in health IT infrastructure.

The collaboration will study new ways healthcare organizations can leverage large volumes of diverse data produced and collected. IBM suggests that a secure owner-mediated data sharing ecosystem could potentially assist in new discoveries and improved public health.

Healthcare organizations are seeking secure ways to exchange information as the amount of data is growing due to connected medical devices and other IoT devices.

"The healthcare industry is undergoing significant changes due to the vast amounts of disparate data being generated. Blockchain technology provides a highly secure, decentralized framework for data sharing that will accelerate innovation throughout the industry," said Shahram Ebadollahi, Vice President for Innovations and Chief Science Officer, IBM Watson Health.

Using blockchain, researchers aim to provide healthcare providers with a full view of patient data by giving patients the opportunity to access their personal health information and share that information with their various healthcare providers through a secure channel.

Blockchain technology allows participating healthcare organizations to share data without having to put blind trust in another organization’s IT infrastructure to ensure the data will remain secure. Blockchain operates by leaving an unalterable audit trail of all transactions holding each organization responsible and accountable for the data during their part of the exchange process.

Late last year, Deloitte released a report touching on placing the patient at the center of their personal health information, stating that blockchain has the potential to connect fragmented systems to generate insights to better assess the value of care.

“The current state of health care records is disjointed and stovepiped due to a lack of common architectures and standards that would allow the safe transfer of sensitive information among stakeholders in the system,” authors of the report stated.

The report states that by using blockchain, healthcare organizations could have a standardized way to exchange data by having each individual patient be the center of their own EHR rather than the organization’s database. Each patient would be part of a nationwide blockchain transaction layer.

“This flow of information originating from the patient through the healthcare organization each time a service is performed does not need to stop at the individual organizational level,” the authors explained. “Instead, health care organizations could take one more step and direct a standardized set of information present in each patient interaction to a nationwide blockchain transaction layer.”

IBM asserts that the promise of blockchain technology in healthcare is increasingly evident and, along with the FDA, will share initial research findings in later this year

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