IBM, FDA will use blockchain to protect medical data transfers

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A new partnership between IBM Watson Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will test whether blockchain can be used to improve public health, allowing for secure exchange of personal health data online.

IBM announced the new research initiative this week, revealing it hopes to create a “secure, efficient and scalable exchange of health data” thanks to a unique implementation of blockchain.

Through the test, owner meta data will be exchanged from several sources, including electronic medical records, clinical trials, genomic data, and health data from mobile devices, wearables, and the “internet of things.” For the trial, the focus will be oncology-related data.

The FDA and IBM have inked a two-year agreement for the tests, and the first research findings are set to be shared in 2017.

IBM’s bet on blockchain would be a new and unique implementation for the technology, which was created as a secure way to authorize transactions online using the digital currency bitcoin. Experts believe that bitcoin will likely become more specialized, advanced and tailored to individual needs as the technology evolves, and IBM’s tests are one example of its possibilities.

Big Blue cited a recent IBM Institute for Business Value paper that polled about 200 healthcare executives, discovering more than 7 in 10 expect big things from blockchain in healthcare. They see the technology being used to accrue managing clinical trial records, regulatory compliance and medical and health records.

The need for secure data transfers becomes even more important in the medical field as new technology allows for wearable devices that can measure a user’s health, fitness and status. Those devices can not only help to treat disease, but prevent it from happening in the first place, if the proper data is made available to medical professionals.

As such devices become commonplace, safeguarding the security of highly personal health data will be paramount. As a result, the FDA recently issued a series of guiding principals for device makers, suggesting ways in which they can help maintain the security of their networked devices once they are in use by patients.

IBM has played a major role in pushing blockchain for businesses, as the company is a contributor to the Hyperledger project, an open-source effort to improve blockchain for mainstream commercial adoption.

“The healthcare industry is undergoing significant changes due to the vast amounts of disparate data being generated,” said Shahram Ebadollahi, vice president for Innovations and chief science officer at IBM Watson Health. “Blockchain technology provides a highly secure, decentralized framework for data sharing that will accelerate innovation throughout the industry.”