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Could Patents Freeze Blockchain’s Progress?

Posted on March 6, 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.

Everywhere you look, somebody’s talking about blockchain technology and its amazing future. In fact, the healthcare industry is engaging in perhaps the most aggressive blockchain deployments of any industry, according to Deloitte.

Originally, blockchain was an open-source platform, freely available to anyone who wanted to use it. But that could soon change, if a new item from Reuters is any indication.

According to the news service, Aussie computer scientist Craig Wright – who claims to be the pseudonymous “Satoshi Nakamoto” responsible for the technology – is working with Canadian online gambling entrepreneur Calvin Ayre to patent aspects of bitcoin/blockchain tech.

To date Wright, who’s being funded by the wealthy Canadian, has filed more than 70 patent applications in Britain in cooperation with associates. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is, considering that only 63 blockchain-related patents were filed globally last year, according Reuters.

Not only that, Wright plans to file many more, Reuters research has concluded. The patent applications include approaches specific to healthcare, including storage of medical documents. Ultimately, Wright and his partners plan to file as many as 400 patent applications, the news service reports.

Ayre is investing in blockchain largely because he sees it as a good fit with the gambling business. And that serves Wright’s interests, which have included online gambling for decades. In fact, Reuters notes that the bitcoin code base contains unimplemented functions related to poker. So it makes sense that he wants to lock it down and own it.

That being said, it seems unlikely that well-funded corporate interests – including healthcare organizations – are going to just sit back and ignore these developments. After all, companies spent more than $1.5 billion on blockchain technology during 2016, and they’re likely to scale up further this year. In other words, they’re not going to let go of blockchain technology without a fight.

Also, it’s worth noting that none of the 70 existing patent applications have been granted to date, and according to Reuters it’s not clear if they’ll even be enforceable if they are.

Finally, Ayer’s history in the U.S. raises questions as to whether he’s completely above-board. In the past, most of his online gambling revenue came from the U.S., a highly-lucrative business which made him extremely rich. But offering such a platform was and is illegal in many states, and as a result one of the states (Maryland) indicted his online gambling network Bodog, Ayer himself and four other people. The case is still pending.

All told, it doesn’t seem likely that health IT organizations need to drop their blockchain plans anytime soon. But it’s worth bearing in mind that blockchain development may be more complicated – and more expensive – in the future.

Healthcare Industry Leads In Blockchain Deployment

Posted on January 19, 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.

A new study by Deloitte concludes that healthcare and life sciences companies stand out as planning the most aggressive blockchain deployments of any industry. That being said, healthcare leaders are far from alone in paying close attention to blockchain, which seems to be coming into its own as corporate technology.

According to Deloitte, 39% of senior executives at large US companies had little or no knowledge of blockchain technology, but the other 61% reported their blockchain knowledge level as broad to expert. The execs who were well-informed about blockchain told Deloitte that it would be crucial for both their company and industry. In fact, 55% of the knowledgeable group said their company would be at a competitive disadvantage if they failed to adopt blockchain, and 42% believed it would disrupt their industry.

Given this level of enthusiasm, it’s not surprising that respondents have begun to invest in blockchain internally. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said their company had invested $5 million of more in blockchain tech to date, and 10% reported investing $10 million or more. Not only that,  25% of respondents expected to invest more than $5 million in blockchain technology this year.

While the level of blockchain interest seems to be pronounced across industries studied by Deloitte, healthcare and life science companies lead the pack when it came to deployment, with 35% of industry respondents saying that their company expects to put blockchain into production during 2017.

All that being said, aggressive deployment may or may not be a good thing just yet. According to research by cloud-based blockchain company Tierion, the majority of blockchain technology isn’t ready for deployment, though worthwhile experiments are underway.

Tierion argues that analysts and professional experts are overselling blockchain, and that most of blockchain technology is experimental and untested. Not only that, its research concludes that at least one healthcare application – giving patients the ability to manage their health data – is rather risky, as blockchain security is shaky.

It seems clear that health IT leaders will continue to explore blockchain options, given its tantalizing potential for sharing data securely and flexibly. And as the flurry of interest around ONC’s blockchain research challenge demonstrates, many industry thought leaders take this technology seriously. If the winning submissions are any indication, blockchain may support new approaches to health data interoperability, claims processing, medical records, physician-patient data sharing, data security, HIEs and even the growth of accountable care.

If nothing else, 2017 should see the development of some new and interesting healthcare blockchain applications, and probably the investment of record new amounts of capital to build them. In other words, whether blockchain is mature enough for real time deployment or not, it’s likely to offer an intriguing show.

ONC Kicks Off Blockchain Whitepaper Contest

Posted on July 11, 2016 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.

Hold onto your hats, folks. The ONC has taken an official interest in blockchain technology, a move which suggests that it’s becoming a more mainstream technology in healthcare.

As you may know, blockchain is the backbone for the somewhat shadowy world of bitcoin, a “cryptocurrency” whose users can’t be traced. (For some of you, your first introduction to cryptocurrency may have been when a Hollywood, CA hospitals was forced to pay off ransomware demands with $17K in bitcoins.)

But despite its use by criminals, blockchain still has great potential for creating breakthroughs for legitimate businesses, notably banking and healthcare. Look at dispassionately, a blockchain is just a distributed database, one which maintains a continuously growing list with data records hardened against tampering and revision.

Right now, the most common use the blockchain is to serve as a public ledger of bitcoin transactions. But the concept is bubbling up in the healthcare world, with some even suggesting that blockchain should be used to tackle health data security problems.

And now, the ONC has shown interest in this technology, soliciting white papers that offer thoughtful take on how blockchain can help meet important healthcare industry objectives.

The whitepaper, which may not be no longer than 10 pages, must be submitted by July 29. (Want to participate, but don’t have time to write the paper yourself? Click here.Papers must discuss the cryptography and underlying fundamentals of blockchain technology, explain how the use of blockchain can meet industry interoperability needs, patient centered outcomes research, precision medicine and other healthcare delivery needs, as well as offering recommendations for blockchain’s implementation.

The ONC will choose eight winning papers from among the submissions. Winning authors will have an opportunity to present the paper at a Blockchain & Healthcare Workshop held at NIST headquarters in Gaithersburg, MD on September 26th and 27th.

In hosting this contest, ONC is lending blockchain approaches in healthcare a level of credibility they might not have had in the past. But there’s already a lot of discussion going on about blockchain applications for health IT.

So what are people talking about where blockchain IT is concerned? In one LinkedIn piece, consultant Peter Nichol argues that blockchain can address concerns around scalability and privacy electronic medical records. He also suggests that blockchain technology can provide patients with more sophisticated privacy control of their personal health information, for example, providers can enhance health data security by letting patients combine their own blockchain signature with a hospital’s signature.

But obviously, ONC leaders think there’s a lot more that can be done here. And I’m pretty confident that they’re right. While I’m no security or cryptocurrency expert, I know that when a technology has been kicked around for several years, and used for a sensitive function like financial exchange without racking up any major failures, it’s got to be pretty solid. I’m eager to see what people come up with!