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CDC Turns to Blockchain to Keep Track of Outbreaks

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The United States government has been one of the first governments in the world to embrace the blockchain technology. While it was very apprehensive of it largely because of the threat of blockchain, but it has not been long before it realized its many other benefits.

Blockchain’s capability to build trust in public service provision through transparent and collaborative networks makes it an ideal system to use in governance and critical information distribution. The Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has figured out how blockchain can be leveraged to track patient health data, monitor infectious diseases, and track prescription medication.

The CDC launched a pilot project late in 2018 to explore ways in which the distributed ledger technology – that is blockchain – can be used to manage patient data over a period of time efficiently, and across different settings. This is particularly important in this age when artificial intelligence presents a huge potential to detect, track, and stay on top of outbreaks and threats to public health.

The department has partnered with various leading technology companies, including IBM, to provide the artificial intelligence technology for the blockchain project and Intel to develop the backbone on which the new blockchain platform will run.

How blockchain works in health

You probably already know blockchain as the underlying technology for cryptocurrency. Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology (DLT) with great potential across almost every industry, including healthcare. Simply put, ‘blockchain’ is a ‘block’ of transactions or data linked together using cryptographic signatures called hashes to form a ‘chain.’ The blockchain is a ledger in which the blocks are verified and stored by a network of connected computers or processes known as ‘nodes.’ Every node in the blockchain network maintains an entire copy of the blockchain that is constantly synced and updated.

Various governments, organizations, and private companies are exploring how the new technology can be used to boost access and quality of healthcare as well as cut costs. Blockchains and their applications differ depending on the underlying specifics such as networking type, encryption, hashes, and intended applications.

However, in general, all blockchain platforms offer the same benefits, including transparency, secure collaboration, faster transactions, automatic and real-time reconciliation of accounts, and transactions without the need for intermediaries or third-parties.

Blockchain strategy to manage and analyze patient data

To demonstrate how committed it is to integrate the newest technologies to improve the welfare of its people, the United States government last year pledged to spend as much as 20 percent of its GDP on healthcare.  The CDC is already tapping the blockchain technology to track and stem the rising cases of opioid addiction in a project that looks to streamline the traditional long-running surveys used to track patient symptoms and treatments.

The new system has proven to be easier for the CDC to collect data through surveys from such institutions as the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, which collects patient health data and visit information from hospitals and doctors all over the country. Presently, the government relies on data collected and analyzed by the CDC to make many determinations from how doctors prescribe opioid painkillers and antibiotics to how frequently Americans are seeking medication for stress management.

The new blockchain-based health surveillance system set to be rolled out by the CDC will make it easier for public health agencies to survey the hospitals and physicians to acquire important information about their patients as well as their prescription practices. In addition to collecting the data, the system will also track, secure, and a log of who accesses which parts of the data and when.

The transparency that the blockchain platform brings to the operations of the CDC is unparalleled and comes at a time when data security is just as sensitive as it is open to how it is used. While the technology itself does not store the patient data, it simplifies the process of keeping track of which data was collected from whom and where it is stored. This helps safeguard sensitive patient information while allowing medical providers access and update the information on the blockchain.

The blockchain platform the CDC is testing stores its data in encrypted electronic records in IBM’s cloud servers. Only authorized individuals in specific agencies would be able to obtain the encryption keys required to access the data.

Managing breakouts and epidemics

One of the most anticipated uses of the blockchain platform in the health industry is to help health workers respond to crises faster and more effectively. The agency is testing how it can use blockchain to study and monitor trails of any reported outbreaks of diseases to help its scientists find their origins and patterns. 

The new platform is very convenient, largely because of the timestamping feature. Coupled with the benefits offered by distributed data processing tools on the cloud, the CDC is certain that proper implementation of blockchain will better help in suppressing the spread of diseases.

When a person contracts an infectious disease such as hepatitis A, the CDC needs to be among the first to know about it in order to take action and contain it. Institutions under the Health Department within the neighborhood in which the diagnosed patient comes from must also be notified. This is important since the patient may have contracted the virus that causes the disease from contaminated food or water in that area, and drastic measures must be taken to prevent further contamination.

The CDC will make use of the blockchain platform to routinely share public data with local and national health organizations besides institutions under the health department. This communication revolution in the health industry has enabled easier and more efficient ways to coordinate the mitigation of the spread of infectious diseases. The institution has already developed special applications that are specially designed for improved public health surveillance and public health data management. The CDC believes that moving such crucial data from one peer to another – faster, securely, and in a compliant manner – is the key to its success in dealing with outbreaks and epidemics.

IBM is not the only company that strongly believes that the blockchain technology has proven invaluable in suppressing epidemics and generally making work easier for the CDC. Intel, too, is partnering with private giants in the pharma industry, including Johnson & Johnson and McKesson, to develop blockchain platforms that would help the CDC. One particular way is helping them better trace how prescription pills are distributed from the manufacturer to the patients.

With such a formidable tool, the CDC will better understand, from a supply chain management perspective, which physicians prescribe which medications and whether they are culpable of malpractices.

Other future blockchain applications in health

There is presently a serious problem in the way health institutions keep public health records. The storage and data distribution system is incoherent and not fully utilized. The confusion arises because the CDC expects the institutions that collect them to file the same data with different institutions, often using different documents.

With the blockchain technology, the CDC will be able to eliminate delays and inaccuracies in data collected from different sources while ensuring that sensitive data is protected from unauthorized individuals.

Another way in which the CDC is exploring the use of blockchain is in consent management. In the current healthcare environment, every state has its own patient and privacy consent regulations. A blockchain-based system would be used to record data sharing consent to ensure that no patient’s privacy is breached on purpose or unintentionally.

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