Like any emerging technology, blockchain is receiving a lot of attention among healthcare organizations, but some of that attention is grounded in unwarranted optimism or needless fear.

In the last year, much progress has occurred in healthcare to advance the use of blockchain technology. For example, in January the Food and Drug Administration and IBM Watson Health announced a partnership to investigate potential ways that blockchain technology can be used in healthcare. And last August, The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT announced winners of its challenge seeking industry ideas on how blockchain could be used in healthcare to protect, manage and exchange electronic health information.

Steve Posnack

Proponents of blockchain believe it could have wide applicability in healthcare. It enables the collection of data from a variety of sources, and keeps an audit trail of transactions, thus establishing accountability and transparency in the data exchange process.

But experts in the use of the technology in healthcare warn that much work lies ahead, and they underscore a range of mistaken beliefs about what the technology can, and can’t, do.

“There is nothing magical about blockchain. It’s a collection of technologies that have been available and in production for years,” says Kenneth Bradberry, chief technology officer at Conduent. “Like any network, database or encryption solution, you’re only as good as the applications, code quality and the administration supporting and managing a blockchain network and enabled service.”

Bradberry will be presenting at a full-day conference during HIMSS17 entitled, “Blockchain in Healthcare, a Rock Stars of Technology Event.” He suggests that there’s a lot of hype surrounding the potential for blockchain, but it won’t solve every healthcare IT issue.

“Like the law of the instruments conveys ‘If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,’ ” he says. “Blockchain has several compelling use cases that I’m excited about presenting at the HIMSS conference.”

Steven Posnack, another speaker at the event and the director of the Office of Standards and Technology at the Department of Health and Human Services, also has observed overblown expectations for blockchain technology. He enumerates at least three:

• Blockchain is “the solution” to interoperability.

• Support of blockchain will require that existing health IT investments be ripped out and replaced.

• Blockchain is the only technology to focus on, “when in reality there are a few other different types and flavors of distributed ledger to consider.”

Both Posnack and Bradberry say much work lies ahead, but they see several potential contributions for the technology in healthcare.

In the next year or so, Posnack predicts blockchain will undergo serious testing in the industry. “There could be prototypes, pilots, proofs of concepts and limited deployments likely in payment and security contexts,” he predicts.

Also See: FDA, IBM Watson Health to study application of blockchain technology

The next few months will be crucial in determining the role that the technology will play in healthcare, Bradberry adds.

“The next 12 months are essential to blockchain’s eventual adoption by healthcare providers, payers and life sciences,” he says. “Getting past the novelty of blockchain and focusing on realistic applications of this distributed ledger technology is important. I would expect an increase in opportunities to pilot and develop proof of concepts.

Industry cooperation on investigating potential uses will be crucial, he believes.

“I can see new opportunities to partner with established companies and start-up companies, building alliances and partnerships,” he adds. “For a blockchain network to be successful, you need to have membership in the network, and the more the better to truly realize the capabilities of blockchain.”

The event will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. February 22 in room 414B, found on level 4 of the West Concourse of the Orange County Convention Center.

Further information on the event, and links for registration can be found here.

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