by Joseph Young
US regulators and government agencies have been eyeing blockchain technology to build robust and transparent data processing platforms for various industries since 2015. The country’s Health and Human Services Department (HHS) plans to be the first government agency to implement the blockchain to secure health records.
Earlier in 2017, executives from the healthcare industry predicted the debut of the blockchain in within the next eight months. Vikas Gujral, the CEO of prominent Indian health insurance firm Max Bupa, stated that the healthcare industry lacks technologies that allow businesses to scale and autonomously handle the settlement of information within a secure ecosystem.
“I feel some innovative and breakthrough technology enablers like Blockchain and SDN will provide significant benefits for health insurance and overall Insurance sector as they allow for significant scalability for businesses,” said Gujral.
The Strategy of HHS & Active Blockchain Development
The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT within HHS has been collaborating with various blockchain consortia and institutions including blockchain advocacy group Chamber of Digital Commerce to test the blockchain’s efficiency in securing health records.
Recently, the two organizations hosted a “code-a-thon,” a blockchain hackathon, to observe the potential of the blockchain within the healthcare industry. The National Coordinator for Health IT invited developers to build blockchain-based platforms that could be utilized by HHS to help both public and private companies in the US.
At the end of the competition, blockchain developer and engineer Tom Nguyen was granted the first place prize of $15,000 for his application called Health Passport, which enables customers and clients to send medical records to specific healthcare or medical companies with cryptographic proof.
Bitcoin, for instance, is a peer-to-peer protocol which is supported by the blockchain amongst many other technologies. Within Bitcoin, the blockchain operates as a database solution that stores and processes transactions. One advantage of using blockchain technology is that it guarantees transparency and real-time processing of data. Therefore in bitcoin, each transaction contains a cryptographic signature or proof that is verified when processed.
Nguyen’s application and the blockchain-based health record storage platform which HHS envisions operate similarly to bitcoin in the sense that health records are treated identically as how transactions are handled in bitcoin. Each record has a cryptographic key that is tough to hack or exploit.
A spokesperson for Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT stated:
“Most would agree that it is still too early to clearly determine how it [blockchain] will impact health record systems. 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.”
Currently, there are two paths HHS could take for the development of their health record storage platform. The department can utilize the Ethereum blockchain which is being used by many multi-billion dollar banks and technology companies such as Microsoft and JP Morgan.
In fact, recently, the Ethereum Foundation introduced the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, an association of leading corporations and organizations dedicated to developing smart contract-based applications. The alliance is led by Microsoft and JP Morgan, that are developing various applications that suit their operations.
If HHS is envisioning the launch of a blockchain-based platform that handles large sets of data and transactions, Ethereum is a viable selection. In the upcoming six months, the Ethereum Foundation stated that smart contracts would autonomously settle fees without manual approvals from users. Therefore, for healthcare organizations that handle millions of data points on a daily basis, autonomous smart contracts are a more efficient selection.
However, companies like RSK are building Ethereum-style smart contract platform on top of the Bitcoin network that allows organizations like HHS to process a lot of data points without having to deal with scalability issues because transactions and other sets of information are processed off-chain.
The benefit of using protocols like RSK is the security measures of bitcoin that are comparably higher than that of Ethereum or other public blockchains that focus on flexibility and functionality.