Blockchain’s tremendous potential in healthcare highlighted at HIMSS17: Key things to know

If you were among the 40,000 plus attendees at last month’s HIMSS conference in Orlando, you couldn’t help but notice the buzz surrounding “blockchain”, a new technology making big waves across a variety of industries, including healthcare. Excitement was sparked on Day One of the conference when IBM CEO Gini Rometty, HIMSS17 keynote speaker, stated her belief that blockchain offers endless opportunities to improve productivity and that the technology “will have a profound impact on healthcare.”  The conversation (and excitement) about blockchain progressed from there, with many exhibits and educational sessions at HIMSS17 devoted to exploring this new application for the secure exchange of data.

So what exactly is blockchain technology, where did it come from, and how exactly will it change what we are doing in health IT?  At its simplest, blockchains are a new data structure that create trusted, distributed digital ledgers for assets and other data. It is the technology that underlies recent breakthroughs in cryptography and computing, the tipping point of which was the 2008 introduction of Bitcoin, an encrypted digital currency that allows the transfer of funds independent of a bank. Blockchains enable a new infrastructure layer for data and digital services that can be deployed between servers, on mobile devices, or with the Internet of Things. Blockchain technology can provide powerful new capabilities to existing systems or can replace legacy ones and can exist in public or private consortiums.

Data exchange in healthcare is complex. The need to deploy new solutions is imperative as current technology infrastructures do not support the security or interoperability requirements of our growing digital health ecosystem. Blockchains can provide technology solutions to myriad challenges encompassing health data interoperability, integrity and security, portable user-owned data, and other areas. For example, one of blockchains’ key strengths is the unmodifiable history of transactions. New middleware layers grant healthcare businesses and applications the opportunity to create audit trails for medical data and health records embedded within a blockchain.  The use cases for healthcare are vast. One possible scenario for blockchain could be to track the movement of prescription drugs all the way from the batch that it came from through intermediaries all the way to the pharmacist and on to the patient. Blockchain could also have significant ramifications for improving some of the huge logistical information tracking hurdles of RCM functions. The essence of RCM is the need to correlate and track numerous transactions and get an up-to-date, single view of the truth.  Blockchains could enable that view.

The core technology behind bitcoin is poised to revolutionize data interoperability, and may soon  hopefully enable patients to designate personalized data sharing specifications. Companies like IBM are excited about new possibilities presented with blockchain, but it is important to remember— and something Rometty highlighted —that successful adoption of this new technology requires standards. Today, the industry is focused on established standards and frameworks for healthcare use. The Hyperledger Foundation is an open source global collaborative effort created to advance cross-industry blockchain technologies. Its work is vital to advance this important new tool for healthcare.

About the Author: Nancy has extensive experience conducting strategic healthcare market research for leading global management consultancies, healthcare corporations, and provider organizations. In her current role as Principal Analyst for Frost & Sullivan’s Connected Health practice, Nancy focuses on U.S. healthcare reform and the digital transformation of healthcare, including clinical and financial IT solutions used by healthcare payers, providers and consumers.