As blockchain matures, stakeholders should weigh competition vs. partnership

Blockchain, heralded as a “game-changer” in many industries, has become a potential way for health systems to store and exchange patient data in a secure format.

But as different consortia and platforms using the distributed ledger technology have emerged, said experts during a HIMSS20 Digital session, so has the potential for information siloing – made increasingly complicated in an era where questions of interoperability are key.

Transactions and trust are the hallmarks of blockchain technology, said Brian Behlendorf, executive director of the blockchain umbrella project Hyperledger, during the panel discussion, Building an Interoperable Blockchain-enabled Ecosystem.

“Healthcare already has many different kinds of trust networks,” said Behlendorf. “We’ll likely see different blockchain networks for identity, payments, for supply chain traceability. … Being able to conduct transactions across those networks is super essential.” 

Behlendorf referred, for example, to transmitting payment for a claim where the claim is tracked on one network and the sending of money is tracked on another: “Both transactions succeed, or they both fail.”

“Interoperability is key to understanding the trust dynamics” between multiple networks, he explained 

Heather Flannery, CEO of cybersecurity firm ConsenSys Health, argued that this technology “requires all of us to challenge ourselves to think differently about who is our competition and who are our partners.”

“It’s important that we don’t simply build an additional set of health-data silos,” she said. “We must be able to demonstrate the flow of a range of different layers across blockchain architectures, or we may actually be doing harm.”

Flannery spoke about the development of standards, acknowledging that “there’s a risk that if standards are developed too early, it might quash innovation or slow the process.”

There’s another perspective, though: “You can look at standardization early as an enabler of innovation,” she said. 

“Our thinking is that by participating, along with our direct competitors in the development of standards, sooner than later, we enable all public and private healthcare symptoms to feel comfortable moving forward with blockchain implementations,” she said.

“There’s a real need to … help ‘de-silo’ data,” said Jim Nasr, CEO of software vendor Acoer. “But also a real need to help visualize the data as real-time as possible, as comprehensively as possible, but also in nontraditional ways.”

“But then the very next question is: ‘Well, can I trust the data?'” he continued.

As the global response to the coronavirus pandemic throws patient security into sharp relief, panelists pointed out the potential usefulness of blockchain technologies to safeguard data, even as more public-health-tracking measures are implemented.

When it comes to contact tracing, said Maria Palombini, emerging communities and initiatives development director at the IEEE Standards Association, “People are worried: ‘Where is this data going, who’s going to use it? Who’s going to touch it? …There [are] a lot of concerns there about the tracking and auditing of your data.”

Blockchain, she said, “can really contribute towards addressing some of these core privacy and security issues.”

Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.