Blockchain prototype promises ‘complete transparency’ between CDC, health providers

Blockchain, one of the latest trends in federal IT, finds yet another potential use case in government — keeping track of electronic health record (EHR) data.

While blockchain powers cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the distributed ledger technology has found its way into several agency pilot programs.

The General Services Administration, for example, has tested using blockchain to make it easier for vendors on the Schedule 70 IT program to establish contracts through automation.

Meanwhile, the Office of Personnel Management launched its first prototype for an Employee Digital Record system using blockchain.

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Askari Rizvi, the technical services branch chief for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday that the agency’s Office of Technology of Innovation and the National Center for Health Statistics have collaborated with IBM to build a proof of concept for an EHR blockchain.

“From our perspective at CDC and NCHS, we’re looking for innovative solutions to resolve our business problems, so we created a blockchain use case to potentially see what types of current and future EHR data collection challenges can be addressed,” Rizvi said during a recent GovExec webinar.

For the proof of concept, the CDC used data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS), which collects information about ambulatory care services in hospital emergency room and outpatient doctors offices, and clinics.

“The overarching blockchain benefits that we’ve seen thus far is that it is easier to manage than send and share data. Blockchain seems to embed inherent privacy and security controls,” Rizvi said.

The blockchain prototype, he added, provides “complete transparency” to the health care providers and CDC officials, while still complying with privacy laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA).

“There are a number of edits that we conduct on the data. There’s a rigorous process on the NCHS side to review the data, and then we store the data, and then we make a public use file,” Rizvi said.  “We’ll be able to see exactly, as the data moves through the lifecycle, who has access to it, and at which point. There are no limitations on the frequency of the data received or the size of it.”

Woong Yoon, IBM’s chief architect of blockchain solutions for health care and life sciences, said blockchain makes it easier for companies to transfer data.

“Nowadays, all separate systems have their own data. Each entity has their own data. When they try to share data, they have to establish API to transfer data, and if there’s multiple parties, then the complexity grows exponentially, and there is no trust, because everybody has only a limited view to their data only,” Yoon said.

While the distributed ledger technology enables easier sharing of health care data, Yoon said blockchain ensures all users work from “one source of the truth for all the transactions,” which makes it a reliable medium for secure transactions.

“The whole point of using blockchain is creating trust among more participants, so they can truly share data by means of the distributed ledger, instead of hiding and holding onto your own data only by yourself,” Yoon said.