HHS launches blockchain challenge for health IT

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The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT will explore how blockchain technology can improve the security and integrity of health IT applications through a new challenge.

ONC is soliciting white papers from designers, developers, investigators and patient privacy experts on potential uses of blockchain in emerging health technology apps, such as to digitally sign things and enforce contracts, manage Internet of Things devices, and distribute encrypted storage and trusted access, according to the challenge description

Blockchain — the technology that underpins the bitcoin to prevent tampering with and prove ownership of the cryptocurrency — is like a digital signature, using time-stamping and the linking of transactions or other events to create a private key for an individual, domain or device. While blockchain was initially developed for use with financial transactions, engineers have repurposed it for other use cases like peer-to-peer file sharing, identity management and voting.

“Those of us focused on the privacy and security aspects of health IT have been watching the cryptographic community lean in, actively participating and often leading efforts in blockchain open source community,” an ONC spokesperson told FedScoop in an email. “Proponents of blockchain suggest that it could be used to address concerns about the privacy, security and the scalability of health records.”

Many, though, worry the technical aspects needed to support a blockchain infrastructure, like enormous processing power and specialized equipment, might outweigh the benefits, the spokesperson said. “However most acknowledge blockchain’s potential is still evolving and maturing, especially with respect to its applicability to health. Because there is a lot of hype around the use of blockchain in general, we thought  the timing was right to challenge those leading in this space to provide a bit more substantive information to react to.”

ONC asks interested parties to submit less-than-10-page white papers that “discuss the cryptography and underlying fundamentals of blockchain technology, examine how the use of blockchain can advance industry interoperability needs expressed in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology’s Shared Nationwide Interoperability Roadmap, as well as for Patient Centered Outcomes Research, the Precision Medicine Initiative, delivery system reform, and other healthcare delivery needs, as well as provide recommendations for blockchain’s implementation.”

Submissions will be evaluated based on the concept’s potential to “foster transformative change in the culture of health IT,” viability, innovativeness and “potential for achieving the objectives of ONC,” the website says.

In a FAQ section of the challenge website, ONC explains that very little is known about the use of blockchain in health care. Nevertheless, some groups have discovered successful use cases in the intersection of the two fields, like the government of Estonia using the technology “to provide increased security and auditing of changes to patient health records” and the MIT Enigma Project using it “for consumers/patients to store health information and selectively share for research use.”  

“Although still in its formative stages and evolving, the underlying technology may dramatically change the way digital assets are evaluated, protected and exchanged,” the spokesperson said. “But that is what we are hoping to see as the results of this challenge.”

The office will select 12 to 15 winners from the submissions, awarding each between $1,500 and $5,000. Eight of those winners will be given the opportunity to present their papers at an upcoming National Institute of Standards and Technology workshop on the intersection of blockchain and health IT Sept. 26-27. 

Those interested in participating have until Aug. 8 to submit white papers. Winners will be announced Aug. 29. 

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