How IBM and the CDC are testing blockchain to track health issues like the opioid crisis

By Steven Melendez

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and IBM are collaborating on a blockchain-based system that could track public health issues like the ongoing opioid crisis.



The new system, which IBM and the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics have tested using simulated data, could make it easier for the CDC to survey medical providers about data like the reasons patients visit and the symptoms they display. The CDC already collects much of that data through surveys like the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, which collect patient visit information from doctors and hospitals around the country. Data from CDC surveys are currently used to study everything from how frequently patients seek care for sleep problems to how doctors are prescribing antibiotics and opioid painkillers.

Using the blockchain approach could make it easier to automatically collect the data, keep it secure, and log who’s accessed which parts of it.

“There’s a lot of transparency that blockchain seems to offer to us,” says Askari Rizvi, chief of the technical services branch of the CDC’s Division of Health Care Statistics.

A blockchain somewhat similar to the ones that power cryptocurrencies like bitcoin would store data about the medical files provided to the CDC. The blockchain wouldn’t store the data itself, but it would track who has access to which pieces of data, helping to safeguard potentially sensitive patient information, says David McElroy, a blockchain technical lead for IBM’s federal government unit.

Researchers, the CDC, and medical providers could all connect to the blockchain to update and access information about who’s been granted permission to access which data. The medical records themselves, obtained through hospital electronic record systems, would be stored encrypted in IBM’s cloud systems, and only people authorized through the blockchain would be able to obtain the encryption keys.

“There’s a consent service that is running in our cloud,” says McElroy.


Blockchains are perhaps still most commonly associated with cryptocurrencies, where the secure digital ledgers are used to track who owns each unit of currency, with copies of the ever-growing chain of records automatically duplicated to anyone who wants them. But companies like IBM and Microsoft are exploring how the technology can be used in more traditional industries to sync up data like logs and transaction records between business associates, like health providers and the CDC. The automatic data replication can help maintain a reliable audit trail for more than just digital currency, they say.

A likely next step for the CDC experiment will be working with companies like electronic health record vendors to further test the system with simulated data. There’s no firm timeline for when the blockchain might be deployed with real world information, but Rizvi says he’s hopeful that it will one day help public health officials gather more information from medical providers.

“The idea is to capture additional datasets that we currently don’t,” he says.



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