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IBM Watson Health and FDA to Collaborate on Blockchain Project

Today, IBM Watson Health has announced a collaborative project with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration aimed at applying emerging blockchain technology applications toward the advancement of public health.

Through the use of blockchain technology, this project will explore efficient and secure ways for consumers to share their data and make better, more informed healthcare choices. This two-year research agreement will allow IBM and the FDA to explore ways of exchanging patient-level data from a number of different sources, including electronic medical records, clinical trials and genomic tests, as well as information trails from mobile devices and wearables. This process is currently limited by concerns about data integrity, security and breaches that persist with the existing system.

The initial area of focus for this project will target oncology-related data, with IBM Watson Health and the FDA planning to share their initial findings later in 2017.

The key element fueling this push is the IBM Watson Health platform. Launched in April of 2015 as the first commercially available cognitive computing system delivered through the cloud, this system will play a key role in analyzing high volumes of data, sorting through complex questions and proposing evidence-based answers.

Dr. Shahram Ebadollahi, Vice President of Innovations and Chief Science Officer of IBM Watson Health's business unit, told Bitcoin Magazine that the FDA partnership will be aimed at leveraging blockchain technology using IBM’s deep domain expertise in healthcare combined with efforts ensuing from its partnership with the Linux Foundation's Hyperledger project.

“We plan to examine how this technology may offer a framework that could one day result in a secure patient/consumer exchange of health data for various purposes. Achieving this will require us to address a number of issues like privacy, interoperability and the issue of trust. That’s no small task.”

The ultimate intent of these efforts is to provide patients with a mechanism for securely sharing their health data for research purposes across the healthcare spectrum while creating opportunities for broader improvement to the existing, much-maligned healthcare delivery model.  

In a recent IBM Institute for Business Value paper “Healthcare Rallies for Blockchain,” the result of a survey of about 200 healthcare executives, more than seven in ten industry leaders believe that the highest return on investment for blockchain technology involves the management of clinical trial records, medical/health information and regulatory compliance. Through the examination of the blockchain model, IBM and the FDA will look to see if it can deliver value to public health efforts through information exchange across a wide variety of data types, including clinical trials and “real world” evidence data.

Ebadollahi noted that this data is currently entrenched in myriad silos that restrict its purposeful use. It’s here, he says, that the blockchain’s distributed ledger capabilities can play an important role in facilitating the audit trail of information, thereby freeing it for greater utilization.

“The underlying proposition we’re seeking to address is how to place the health data in the hands of the consumer for use with their consent. Given the volume and variety of data we are dealing with here, we believe that blockchain [technology] can potentially make a meaningful impact without the need for a middleman or central clearinghouse.”  

In terms of his long-term hope for this project, Ebadollahi said, “As growing numbers of potential applications become evident, IBM hopes to refine technological approaches toward building a scalable and decentralized infrastructure for more widespread use. I believe this involves placing consumers and patients at the center of how this data is going to be used and shared. Ultimately this is the key.”

Michael Scott

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