Health care groups to use blockchain to improve provider data

Five national groups, including UnitedHealthcare and Optum, are launching a pilot program to see if blockchain can help keep data accurate.

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3 min read

Blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin, is creeping into the health care space.

Laptop and stethoscope on desk

Five national health care groups are launching a blockchain pilot program in an effort to to improve data quality and reduce administrative costs.


A growing number of researchers and companies are finding that blockchain -- a permanent, openly accessible record of transactions -- can make sharing and accessing data more efficient. On Monday, five health care organizations -- Humana, MultiPlan, Quest Diagnostics, Optum and UnitedHealthcare -- said they're following suit, launching a pilot program to see if blockchain technology can keep health plan provider directories up to date.

Typically, physicians and health systems keep separate copies of health care provider data, such as a doctor's name, address and specialty, as well as which insurance they accept. Reconciling differences in their data can be expensive and time-consuming. The commercial health care industry spends at least $2.1 billion a year collecting and maintaining provider data, according to an estimate from the Council for Affordable Quality Healthcare, a nonprofit. 

Blockchain could help bring down administrative costs by ensuring data is complete and accurate across all parties, the health care organizations say.  

"The nature of the blockchain technology really lends itself to the formation of cooperating alliances like this," said Mike Jacobs, senior distinguished engineer at Optum. "Whenever you have a situation where there's a lot of synchronization and reconciliation, it's a great use case for blockchain."

The blockchain was propelled into the spotlight by the rise of bitcoin, a popular digital currency. But the technology has spread well beyond cryptocurrencies and is now being used to confirm food ordered online is legit and ensuring prescription drugs aren't fake. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, are building a blockchain system that lets people securely share their medical data so it can be used to train an AI algorithm for detecting breast cancer. Electronic medical records could also be getting a boost from blockchain: MedRec is using the technology to create a decentralized content management system for health care data across providers.

The new pilot will look into whether using blockchain to share data across health care organizations can improve accuracy, streamline administrative activities and improve access to care. It'll also examine whether sharing provider data inputs and changes made by parties across a blockchain can reduce operational costs and improve data quality.

"Not only is the quality of the data more complete and more accurate, the decisions made on that [data] are going to be a lot more timely and effective," said Lidia L. Fonseca, senior vice president and chief information officer of Quest Diagnostics. "It also has the ability to reduce the burden, because we're not each five of us independently having to maintain our own sets of all this. We'll have it in this co-owned, co-operated blockchain environment."

We're likely still a year or two away from using blockchain for things like personal health information, Jacobs says. But as the technology develops, patients would have a single source to view, aggregate and share their health history, regardless of where they are or which provider or payer was involved.  

"The technology is still a nascent one," Jacobs said. "Its capabilities are transitioning from those of a public blockchain from things like bitcoin into enterprise capabilities where we have regulatory, security  privacy and scalability concerns that aren't necessarily addressed by some of the technology stacks today."

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