Data provenance seen as a top healthcare use case for blockchain

Three of four finalists in ONC competition use the technology to address privacy and security issues associated with electronic health information exchange.

Three of the four finalists in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT’s Data Provenance Challenge are leveraging blockchain technology to address the accountability, privacy and security issues associated with sharing electronic health information.

Data provenance involves the ability to trace and verify when and who created information, how it has been used or moved among different data sources, and how it has been modified throughout its lifecycle while it has been exchanged.

Because blockchain has a data structure that can be time-stamped and signed using a private key to prevent tampering, the technology is seen as a natural fit for managing the accountability, authentication, confidentiality and sharing of information.

Also See: 8 properties of blockchain that could aid data exchange

“When you’re talking about data provenance, it’s really hard not to think of blockchain,” observes Tom Nguyen, founder and CEO of Nashville-based startup Emrify. “It’s kind of the first core use case for the blockchain.” Nguyen and the other Phase 1 finalists in ONC’s Data Provenance Challenge made presentations on their solutions on Tuesday during a half-day webinar on the use of blockchain and its implications for healthcare, hosted by ONC and the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

Emrify’s solution uses a blockchain application stack to enhance data provenance through the use of personal health record (PHR) smart contracts on the public Ethereum blockchain network, a distributed computing platform and operating system featuring smart contract (scripting) functionality.

“We’re looking to decentralize the personal health record,” says Nguyen, who believes that a public blockchain network like Ethereum provides a higher degree of provenance than a smaller private blockchain. “The future of healthcare will revolve around the person with patient-centric care.”

Nguyen believes that the unique properties of the Ethereum blockchain network enables data to be owned and controlled by an individual, which will help assist anyone to start aggregating health data and instantly share it with any party with an identity using the digital token.

He adds that when data is exchanged within a healthcare organization, such as a hospital, provenance “isn’t really as crucial.” However, when data is exchanged among multiple parties, that’s where the importance of provenance comes into play, according to Nguyen.

Boston-based 1UpHealth is piloting the use of its partner’s provider application to surface provenance information and help providers find aggregated data from various sources using HL7’s Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) application programming interface, along with proposed improvements afforded by smart contracts on the blockchain’s public ledger.

“We’re basically building a platform for developers, providers and patients to access their clinical data across health systems and sensors in minutes,” says Ricky Sahu, co-founder and CEO of 1UpHealth. “It’s built on FHIR and blockchain to basically future-proof for any sort data standards in the near term.”

Hyper E-Health, another Phase 1 finalist, is the result of a collaboration between scientists at the University of Southampton’s Department of Electronics and Computer Science in the UK and Austria’s Tiani Spirit, a healthcare information exchange vendor. Their proposal builds on existing standards such as the Sequoia Project and the Nationwide Health Information Network (NwHIN) and builds upon them using blockchain technology for the security and immutability of records.

In Phase 1 of the Data Provenance Challenge, ONC received 19 submissions, which involved providing white papers describing their health data provenance solutions. The four finalists were awarded $20,000 each. Phase 2 involves the development and testing of those solutions.

ONC will announce the Phase 2 winners of the challenge on February 21. The first place winner will be awarded $60,000, and the second place winner will receive $40,000.

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