IBM bets on the blockchain to keep your medical data safe

Big Blue believes the secure transfer of medical information can be achieved through technology associated with Bitcoin.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
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IBM has announced a new partnership with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a study designed to determine whether blockchain technology can be used to keep medical data transfers safe from theft or exploit.

The tech giant announced the collaboration between IBM Watson Health and the FDA on January 11.

The research initiative is a two-year agreement between the FDA and IBM which aims to create and promote a "secure, efficient and scalable exchange of health data using blockchain technology."

As our healthcare systems rely more and more on electronic records, the idea of transformative, smart healthcare systems has caught the eyes of tech vendors and research teams alike. Using software to create more efficient records systems, using Big Data and sequencing to improve our understanding of genetics and the use of smart devices to monitor the conditions of patients automatically are just some of the ways technology is impacting our health, but with innovation lies risk.

Data breaches are a daily occurrence in today's world. If is a matter of when, not if, enterprise players become the victim of a successful cyberattack, and it is almost expected that, eventually, your data will in some form end up for sale online.

However, when medical data is at risk, this deeply sensitive and personal information makes the entire situation far more serious and potentially devastating for victims.

In May last year, the UK National Health Service (NHS) was fined £180,000 after the names of 700 HIV sufferers were accidentally leaked online.

See also: Surprise, Surprise: UK patients reluctant to share medical data

IBM hopes to mitigate these risks by working with the FDA to secure medical data from sources including electronic medical records, clinical trials, genomic data, and health data from mobile devices, wearables, and the Internet of Things.

In an initial trial focused on oncology, blockchain technology will be used to create an electronic ledger of where, and how, data is transferred and exchanged -- in the same way that cryptocurrency transactions are traced.

The hope is that by creating an audit trail through the ledger, healthcare professionals will be able to hold information leakers accountable, maintain transparency in what data is going where, and secure weak spots in the sharing process.

"The healthcare industry is undergoing significant changes due to the vast amounts of disparate data being generated," said Shahram Ebadollahi, vice president for innovations and chief science officer of IBM Watson Health.

"Blockchain technology provides a highly secure, decentralized framework for data sharing that will accelerate innovation throughout the industry," Ebadollahi added.

If proven to be successful, IBM's Watson Health unit could stand to drive more business and profit by creating a scalable, decentralized platform for sharing medical data in a secure manner.

Initial research findings will be shared later this year.

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