IBM Watson Partners With FDA On Blockchain-Driven Health Sharing

Posted on January 16, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she’s served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

IBM Watson Health has partnered with the FDA in an effort to create scalable exchange of health data using blockchain technology. The two will research the exchange of owner-mediated data from a variety of clinical data sources, including EMRs, clinical trial data and genomic health data. The researchers will also incorporate data from mobiles, wearables and the Internet of Things.

The initial project planned for IBM Watson and the FDA will focus on oncology-related data. This makes sense, given that cancer treatment involves complex communication between multispecialty care teams, transitions between treatment phases, and potentially, the need to access research and genomic data for personalized drug therapy. In other words, managing the communication of oncology data is a task fit for Watson’s big brain, which can read 200 million pages of text in 3 seconds.

Under the partnership, IBM and the FDA plan to explore how the blockchain framework can benefit public health by supporting information exchange use cases across varied data types, including both clinical trials and real-world data. They also plan to look at new ways to leverage the massive volumes of diverse data generated by biomedical and healthcare organizations. IBM and the FDA have signed a two-year agreement, but they expect to share initial findings this year.

The partnership comes as IBM works to expand its commercial blockchain efforts, including initiatives not only in healthcare, but also in financial services, supply chains, IoT, risk management and digital rights management. Big Blue argues that blockchain networks will spur “dramatic change” for all of these industries, but clearly has a special interest in healthcare.  According to IBM, Watson Health’s technology can access the 80% of unstructured health data invisible to most systems, which is clearly a revolution in the making if the tech giant can follow through on its potential.

According to Scott Lundstrom, group vice president and general manager of IDC Government and Health Insights, blockchain may solve some of the healthcare industry’s biggest data management challenges, including a distributed, immutable patient record which can be secured and shared, s. In fact, this idea – building a distributed, blockchain-based EMR — seems to be gaining traction among most health IT thinkers.

As readers may know, I’m neither an engineer nor a software developer, so I’m not qualified to judge how mature blockchain technologies are today, but I have to say I’m a bit concerned about the rush to adopt it nonetheless.  Even companies with a lot at stake  — like this one, which sells a cloud platform backed by blockchain tech — suggest that the race to adopt it may be a bit premature.

I’ve been watching tech fashions come and go for 25 years, and they follow a predictable pattern. Or rather, they usually follow two paths. Go down one, and the players who are hot for a technology put so much time and money into it that they force-bake it into success. (Think, for example, the ERP revolution.) Go down the other road, however, and the new technology crumbles in a haze of bad results and lost investments. Let’s hope we go down the former, for everyone’s sake.