HHS Wants More Blockchain In Health Records—Eventually

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A recent code-a-thon showcased different ways the technology could be used to protect and share health records.

The Health and Human Services Department is tentatively looking into ways blockchain technology—the same system that lets people trade bitcoins—could be used in health care.

Blockchain is a decentralized digital ledger that records virtual transactions that can't be changed after the fact. No one controls the records and anyone on the network can review the ledger's history. With bitcoin, such ledgers track the movements of virtual currency. In health care, they could be used to mark a patient’s interactions with various health care providers, giving providers a complete view of a patient’s care.

HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT and blockchain advocacy group Chamber of Digital Commerce recently co-hosted a “code-a-thon,” inviting developers to build blockchain-based products for health care. The event doled out $15,000 in prizes.

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Chris Hafey, chief technology officer at NucleusHealth, a medical image management technology company, took second place at the event. He is working on a system that lets hospitals share medical images with other health care providers, for example, when a rural primary care physician might refer patients to a specialist in the city, requiring them to transfer X-rays.

The blockchain-based system could allow those disparate groups to share medical images with each other instead of forcing patients to undergo screenings every time they’re referred to new hospitals, he explained. The company plans to launch a similar product this year.

Developer Tom Nguyen presented an app called Health Passport, which won first place. The consumer-facing prototype would let patients send their medical records to providers without worrying about setting up a complex authentication process as long as the providers had a cryptographic key, he explained.

The event was designed to “expand everyone’s thinking about blockchain-based applications in health care,” Steve Posnack, ONC’s director of the Office of Standards and Technology, said in a statement.

Despite blockchain’s promise, “most would agree that it is still too early to clearly determine how it will impact health record systems,” an ONC spokesperson told Nextgov. “ONC is keeping a close eye on the developments in this area and is looking for signs of adoption and acceptance of the technology in the marketplace.”

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