The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has set up a challenge to identify ways in which blockchain can support privacy, security and scalability in health IT and research data. Blockchain, the technology best known as enabling the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, is seen by HHS as a way to manage the internet of things, improve digital signatures and enforce contracts.
Having identified the potential for blockchain to address some of the challenges facing health IT and research data, HHS is looking outside its walls for ideas about how to realize the technology’s promise. The agency, specifically the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health IT, wants anyone with ideas about how to utilize blockchain in health IT to outline their thinking in 10-page white papers. HHS will award between $1,500 and $5,000 to the best 12 to 15 entries, and select up to 8 of these to present at a blockchain workshop being organized by the government.
While the dollar amounts on offer are relatively small, the challenge is nonetheless a notable moment in the potential transition of blockchain from much-discussed technology to key enabler of health IT and data initiatives. The technology is best known in relation to the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. In this context, the chain of linked, timestamped data records acts as a decentralized public ledger of Bitcoin transactions. Once it became clear blockchain had overcome the long-standing barriers to the development of a cryptocurrency, people began looking for new uses of the technology.
Ideas such as invoices that pay for themselves on receipt of a shipment have sprung forth. HHS has been paying attention. "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. “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."
The ability of blockchain to live up to the hype in healthcare is unclear. Some known barriers exist. The equipment and computing power needed to support a blockchain could prove prohibitive. Or an-as-yet unidentified issue could limit its use in healthcare. What is now clear is that HHS is keen to find out whether blockchain can further its work on interoperability, data security and other tasks.