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Like it or not, blockchain is coming to health IT

Get used to it. Blockchain is invading health IT. And it’s moving fast.

Sure, while blockchain’s encrypted distributed ledger technology has already made big inroads in the finance sector, in healthcare blockchain still is in its infancy.

But it’s one big infant.

Here’s a partial list of corporate, healthcare and academic heavyweights that have already made investments in or publicly signaled they are making a commitment to blockchain for healthcare:

Some of these players’ conceptualizations were among the 15 finalists that the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology (ONC) picked in a contest over the summer.

There were also at least 62 other proposals submitted.

I witnessed the ferment in this early stage era of blockchain in healthcare earlier this week at a workshop put on by ONC and the National Institute of Standards and Technology at NIST headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., about a half-hour from Washington, D.C.

By the way, the federal government’s interest in the technology is clear.

The potential for the technology is particularly promising for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees ONC and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Blockchain’s auditing capabilities, in the form of an immutable ledger system that can’t be altered without everyone else on the blockchain seeing it happen, could dramatically reduce Medicare fraud, some proponents say.

Among the 200 or so attendees at the NIST-ONC event were also quite a few critics, skeptics and purveyors of alternatives to blockchain that do some of the same things blockchain does, such as use distributed ledgers.

The blockchain-questioning crowd included developers, analysts and fledgling vendors of blockchain-like systems.

Interestingly, though, it was physicians and representatives of big companies who expressed the most optimism about blockchain’s prospects in healthcare.

“We as a manufacturer are very interested in this,” Dominique Hurley, senior director for global commercial excellence and operations for Biogen, the Cambridge, Mass.-based life sciences giant, said after IBM’s blockchain presentation.

Some observers think blockchain in healthcare will take off once major vendors and healthcare provider and payers start to cooperate, as banks and other financial institutions are doing now with blockchain.

Even the perennially warring EHR mega-vendors Epic Systems Corp. and Cerner Corp. may agree to embrace the technology, Bryant Joseph Gilot, M.D., a Philadelphia area surgeon and blockchain aficionado, told me.

“I think they will be enthusiastic at some point when they realize the benefits and efficiencies to be gained,” Gilot said.

Yet as of today, it appears no real world applications of blockchain have materialized, at least in the U.S.

However, Estonia, the Baltic country known for its adoption of “e-government” in which some 1,000 government services are available online, has embarked on a project with blockchain vendor Guardtime to secure 1 million citizen’s health records with a form of blockchain technology linked to an Oracle database.

Stay tuned.

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