The system would allow the agency to quickly respond to health crises as they unfold.
Tracking major public health developments requires lots of data, and the Centers for Disease Control is exploring how blockchain can help address the privacy and security concerns that limit access to that information.
The agency relies heavily on surveys of medical professionals to assess the health of the country, but response rates have fallen in recent years, said Askari Rizvi, chief of the technical services branch at CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Today many government researchers see digital health records as a means make up the lost data, though tapping those resources comes with lots of regulations, he said.
For the last year, Rizvi and his team worked with IBM to build a blockchain-based system that lets the agency closely control access to sensitive information and keep tabs on how datasets move through the organization. Though still in its infancy, the technology could automate the compliance process and potentially transform the way government responds to national health crises, Rizvi told Nextgov.
Blockchain allows users to store information on an encrypted ledger that permanently records every exchange. It’s distributed nature makes it useful for securing sensitive data—like medical records—and ensuring information is only accessed by the right people.
To monitor nationwide health trends, CDC needs as much data as it can get its hands on, but collecting sensitive information from disparate sources can get messy, said IBM Blockchain Lead David McElroy, who worked with Rizvi on the project.
“There [is] a tremendous amount of value to tapping directly into these [electronic health records] systems and obtaining data,” McElroy told Nextgov, but the way that information is shared and regulated today “limits the sharing and aggregation of these valuable datasets.”
With the proper controls in place, blockchain could let providers take a “marketplace approach” with their information. Organizations can make their databases automatically available to some parties while maintaining the right to revoke access at any point in the future, he said.
Beyond upholding standards for sharing medical data, the tool could also make a significant impact on the agency’s ability to study and address national health trends, Rizvi said. The automatic exchange of information would provide researchers with more data to analyze and give them a real-time view of health events as they unfold.
Analyzing the information coming through the system, researchers could quickly spot potential crises and use real-time data to inform the agency’s response, Rizvi said. While his team and IBM plan to focus explore how the system could inform the fight against the opioid epidemic, he said its applications are virtually unlimited.
“Regardless of what the crisis is, we could address it because we would have that dataset,” he said.
In the proof of concept, CDC and IBM linked synthetic data from a fictional health care provider to the blockchain and demonstrated how providers could make data available or inaccessible on a case-by-case basis. Rizvi said the pilot, which concluded in February, met every one of the group’s objectives.
In the next stage of the project, he said his team is looking to partner with private providers and work out a framework for sharing data between the organizations. He added a number of his colleagues have already approached him to get his take on their own ideas for blockchain use cases. The agency is already exploring its potential for accelerating the process for deploying experts to crisis zones.
Still, there are some obstacles to exchanging digital records blockchain itself won’t address, said McElroy. While the technology controls access to data, it doesn’t facilitate the transfer of information, and the sharing process could bring with it issues of data storage and interoperability, he said.
On top of that, capabilities like real-time crisis response will only become reality with significant buy-in from the health care industry, said McElroy. And with a relatively new technology like blockchain, that remains an uphill battle.
“The challenge we've experienced is … moving beyond that initial pilot or proof of concept,” he said. “It's kind of like a grand experiment underpinned by this new technology. It's about taking lessons learned, determining best practices and really trying to grow these networks. I think that we're seeing it to come to fruition in some areas.”
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