As published on Clinical Informatics News, November 8, 2018
By Benjamin Ross
November 8, 2018 | NASHVILLE—Leaders in the healthcare and blockchain spaces came together for the third annual Distributed: Health conference in Nashville, Tennessee, a city known for its booming healthcare industry with a $47 billion impact. It’s also been ranked by CryptoFundResearch as the 17th city in the US for blockchain jobs.
The conference wasted no time getting down to business. Featuring three tracks that consisted of investors, healthcare providers, and researchers, the Distributed: Health 2018 zeroed in on a key question: Where are we in the integration of blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) into the healthcare space?
It’s a question that must be answered, former US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said in his opening keynote, as researchers try to introduce disruptive technology into an industry that needs disrupting.
“The single greatest impact blockchain can have is to make healthcare more seamless, more personal,” Frist said. “Blockchain gives us a chance to expand the way we think. The challenge is to take the innovation in this room and implement it to address the inequities of healthcare and reach out to the populations we haven’t be able to reach before.”
A Culture Of Health
Michael Painter, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, then joined Frist on stage to discuss how blockchain could help healthcare create a “culture of health.”
What would it take for “everyone [to] have the hope and opportunity to live a healthy life,” asked Painter. “It would take access to great doctors and hospitals, like we know. But it would also take all of the things that drive health; 80% of health is dealt with on a patient level.”
In the spirit of that culture of health, companies including FedEx, HCA Healthcare, and Hashed Health recently collaborated to form Tokenize Tennessee, an organization outlining the state’s approach to blockchain/DLT and create an action plan to strengthen the state’s DLT community. Four workgroups have been developed that focus on technical, advocacy, education, community building, and business models, Jamari Brown, director for business development at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, announced.
“The organization’s vision is to advance an entrusted and welcoming innovation ecosystem for businesses, governments, and communities to thrive,” said Brown.
Taking Control Of Your Data
Despite innovation in the DLT space, several presenters made it clear that blockchain’s success depends on the community’s engagement with the technology.
Kamal Obbad, co-founder and CEO of Nebula Genomics, referred to genomic sequencing as an example of how progress requires the community.
“We said if we can get the human genome sequenced for $1,000 that will revolutionize personalized medicine. But that hasn’t come to fruition. The problem was no one was getting their genome sequenced.”
Obbad pointed to two barriers for the lack of engagement. One is that the existing genomic health data available is fragmented, making it hard to interconnect siloed datasets. The other, frankly, is that individual consumers are scared of getting their genome sequenced.
“Patients are worried about how their data is going to be used: whether their employer gets their data or their health insurance company gets their data,” Obbad said. “Even though there are laws about how this data can be used by institutions, a lot of people are still concerned about it.”
Blockchain, Obbad argued, incentivizes people to get their genome sequenced, providing strong security and guarantees about how their data are being used and accessed in a transparent way. This will allow people to become more comfortable with sharing their data.
Richie Etwaru, founder and CEO of Hu-manity.co, went a step further, saying that blockchain not only adds trust to every data transaction, it removes the need for trust altogether.
Boiling An Ocean Of Regulation
Progress has been made, but there’s still a long way to go as far as the capabilities of blockchain. During a panel assembled to see through the hype of blockchain, transactional patent attorney with Waller, Kristen Johns, advised against looking at the technology as a panacea. Blockchain simplifies things, she said, but it’s not a replacement for what’s already in place for managing data, like EHRs.
There was a cautious optimism, however, from several presenters who said that, yes, this is the technology of the future, but there are still kinks that need to be worked out. It’s a process that must be taken on slowly, viewed on a month-to-month, year-to-year timeframe.
“I think the 3-5 year question is impossible to answer when it comes to this,” Johns said. “If you asked most of us three years ago what blockchain was, we would have looked at you like you were crazy.”
One kink that must be worked out: regulation.
“Just because there’s a technology that will allow something, that doesn’t mean legislation will allow it,” Johns said.
Regulations such as GDPR and HIPAA weren’t created with blockchain in mind, presenters including Lucas Hendren from SimplyVital Health said. The idea, then, is to build a network and have compliance built on top.
“Blockchain is the rope that helps us climb the mountain of healthcare,” Ramu Kannan, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Humana said. “Is it enough? Probably not, but it is a crucial piece to the puzzle.”