IBM's Watson Supercomputer Will Use Blockchain Tech To Secure Patient Data

IBM Watson supercomputer
IBM's Watson supercomputer will be used by FDA to secure patient data exchange. Photo : Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and IBM's Watson Health artificial intelligence unit has signed a two-year joint-development agreement with to aim to explore ways of using blockchain tech in order to share patient data securely for various purposes such as medical research.

IBM Watson Supercomputer To Secure Patient Data

Shahram Ebadollahi, IBM Watson Health Chief Science Officer, said in a statement that due to the vast amount of disparate data being generated, the healthcare industry is undergoing significant changes. According to Computerworld, FDA and IBM Watson Health will explore securing the exchange of patient-level data from several sources, including health data from the Internet of Things (IoT), wearables, mobile devices, clinical trials, electronic medical records (EMRs) and genomic data. However, the initial focus of their collaboration will be on securing oncology-related information.

In 2004, President George W. Bush created the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health Information Technology. According to a report by ONC, only 41 percent of non-federal acute care hospitals had clinical information from their patients at the end of 2015. Additionally, about one in three individuals reported experiencing gaps in information exchange.

Electronic medical records (EMRs) carry a great amount of data, including treatment, genomic information and demographics. The EMRs are also used as repositories for biomedical research. However, there has been little progress in sharing information for clinical use and research because data in EMRs is the most highly sensitive.

According to IBM's researchers, blockchain technology is capable of establishing transparency and accountability for data exchange by keeping an audit trail of all transactions on an unalterable distributed ledger. IBM said in a statement that when healthcare researchers and providers have access to a 360-degree view of patient data, transformative healthcare solutions are possible. But up to date patients cannot easily share with researchers or providers, while they have little access to their own health data.

IBM recently surveyed 200 executives in the healthcare industry, according to its company's website. The healthcare executives have been chosen both among insurance payers and medical providers. The survey found that 16 percent of the participants expect to have a commercial blockchain service for sharing data securely operating at scale in 2017.

Blockchain Tech

Blockchain technology has been associated with the Bitcoin cryptocurrency and payment system, according to Blockchain tech is a tamper-proof, distributed public ledger of transactions used to securely record business contracts, transfer stocks and loans. The technology works via a peer-to-peer computer network exchange.

Each node in the chain can trust others' copies because of they are signed using encrypted hash keys. Each node keeps a copy of the ledger. Blocks of data to be added to the chain are recorded as transactions. Each block contains a unique cryptographic hash used to track that block as well as other blocks in the associated chain. The chains are secure by design and data within the blocks cannot be modified.

Certified EMR technology is useful for the electronic exchange of healthcare information between insurers and providers and for improving the quality of workflow and care. EMR data is also seen as valuable for performing relatively low-cost but large-scale medical, pharmaceutical and healthcare analyses. To date, however, little progress has been made toward that because of privacy and security issues.

The use of secure patient medical data is essential for enabling personalized medicine and for the development of new drugs. For instance, in the personalized medicine the medical treatments are tailored to a specific patient based on various factors such as genomics and others. Through simulation modeling using patient data with machine-learning algorithms can dramatically by improved both the quality and cost of healthcare.

IBM and the FDA said in a joint statement that opportunities for major advancements in healthcare will be created by giving patients the possibility to share their data securely, across their healthcare providers or for research purposes. The two plan to use the blockchain framework in order to aid public health by securing information exchange across a wide variety of data types.

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