ONC kicks off blockchain challenge

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT is looking for ways that blockchain could be put to work in healthcare scenarios.
By Mike Miliard
11:31 AM
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ONC blockchain

"Blockchain is here – and it's going to save everything," blared an article this week in the Guardian. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT also sees an opportunity in blockchain for healthcare. ONC, in fact, has launched a contest to find ways to apply the bitcoin-derived database principles to spur interoperability and cybersecurity.

The challenge, titled "Blockchain and Its Emerging Role in Healthcare and Health-related Research," is looking to explore ways blockchain could be efficiently deployed in clinical settings.

Specifically, contestants should should discuss how its cryptography fundamentals can help drive the data-exchange imperatives outlined in ONC's Nationwide Interoperability Roadmap, patient-centered outcomes research, precision medicine and other healthcare needs.

ONC’s aim is to "discuss the effectiveness of the solution and the solutions ability to function in the real world. This discussion may include information regarding meeting privacy and security standards, implementation and potential performance issues, and cost implications. Risk analysis and mitigation would be appropriate to include here as well."

Blockchain, first developed in 2008 to track bitcoin transactions and protect their integrity by preventing revision or tampering, has shown itself to have applications beyond cryptocurrency.

The structure, which can be timed-stamped and signed with a private key as a security protection, has several potential uses in healthcare, according to ONC: digital signatures, computable enforcement of policies ("smart contracts"), management of IoT devices, distributed encrypted storage and more.

There's been no shortage of hype about bitcoin these past few years, but now it's "starting to look less important than the engine that drives it – the blockchain," the Guardian reported. "It was created to solve a problem that had been puzzling digital activists for decades: how to create digital property without a central authority keeping track of who owns what.

[Also: The pros and cons of doctors taking payment by bitcoin]

With a decentralized digital ledger keeping track of transactions, their "accuracy guaranteed through the combined honesty of the entire network," according to the Guardian, the "core of the idea is to get computers burning energy in order to prove that they are trustworthy, and stamping that trust on the 'blocks' of recorded transactions. You could still lie to the network – but you'd need to burn more energy doing so than every honest participant, combined."

According to notice posted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the ONC challenge, "proponents of blockchain suggest that it could be used to address concerns regarding the privacy, security and the scalability of health records."

Critics, meanwhile, counter that it takes "enormous processing power and specialized equipment that far exceeds the benefits. Although most would acknowledge blockchain's potential it is still evolving and maturing, especially with respect to its applicability to the healthcare."

The submission period for ONC's challenge is open until July 29, and winners will be announced August 20.

Twitter: @MikeMiliardHITN
Email the writer: mike.miliard@himssmedia.com


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