Analyzing Blockchain’s Evolution in Healthcare: Two Experts Dive into the Details

Aug. 16, 2018
Two leaders at KPMG recently spoke with Healthcare Informatics about the greatest use cases for blockchain in healthcare today, and how quickly providers and payers might start moving into full-scale projects.

Earlier this year, five prominent healthcare organizations—Humana, MultiPlan, Quest Diagnostics, and UnitedHealth Group’s Optum and UnitedHealthcare—announced they would be launching a blockchain-based pilot program with the aim to improve healthcare data quality and reduce administrative costs. The organizations said they would be specifically examining how the technology could help ensure that the most current healthcare provider information is available in health plan provider directories.

While many more details of this initiative are not yet known, this announcement has opened the eyes of other healthcare IT leaders who have become increasingly curious about this emerging technology. For instance, at the Nashville Health IT Summit earlier this summer, a senior executive from MultiPlan, which is part of this pilot project, was asked about his perspectives on the research and development work done on blockchain in healthcare in the past few years.

To this point, two leaders at KPMG—Arun Ghosh, the firm's U.S. blockchain leader; and Michael B. Yetter, director, healthcare management consulting—recently spoke with Healthcare Informatics about the impact of this new initiative, what the greatest use cases are for blockchain in healthcare today, and how quickly providers and payers might start moving into full-scale projects. Below are excerpts from that discussion.

What are you hearing about blockchain right now as it relates to its greatest use cases in healthcare? What are people most bullish about?

Yetter: From a client perspective, things are a bit on the early side. But [we often see that] as many emerging technologies gain momentum in some other sectors, you will see the pathway through pharma and then into healthcare with payers and providers. We are seeing that same pattern here. On the ground in the healthcare space, especially amongst payers and providers, we’re starting to see more interest in meaningful pilots. We have had some earlier adopters doing proof of concepts and pilots—many around claims or aspects of claims management, and some around the regulatory impacts of the supply chain.

Michael B. Yetter

We are starting to see the nature of conversations around what those use cases could be become increasingly sophisticated around things such as consortiums on provider data, and making sure the historical challenges around getting provider data to agree across multiple entities—who are either submitting or processing claims—that those specific data elements or attributes or shared or reconciled in a better way. So that’s one good example for where you are starting to see collaboration.

Ghosh: The additional capability that blockchain provides, versus traditional EHR (electronic health record) systems, and other enterprise technology that exists today, is that from the time of an encounter to the time of discharge, we see blockchain being piloted around records and interactions with the patient, but also interactions with the pharmaceutical ecosystem—from drug provisioning or procurement to drug administration. Even with the Obama administration saying that we need EHRs across the board, it’s still nascent in terms of who has access to what kind of record and what kind of electronification exists.

Arun Ghosh

So blockchain is coming as the next level of granularity: if we can provide immutable records that are now at the time of pre-diagnosis all the way to wellness, we can track getting better, but also not returning to the hospital. Now, we have a story. Between payers, providers, pharmaceuticals, and distributors, we are seeing varying levels of interest and adoption. They are saying, “let’s pilot a certain part of this,” but there is still no end-to-end view yet, from what we have seen.

What are your thoughts on the MultiPlan/Humana/Optum/Quest/United initiative? Would you classify this as a meaningful pilot?

Yetter: From an outside view, and we haven’t been directly involved, it’s my understanding that this collaboration is focused on provider data sharing. I would classify that as more meaningful because they are bringing multiple parties together to solve for a specific use case and problem. So it goes beyond the earliest conversations, going back a year or more, that were more about learning and understanding the technology. Now they are saying that they get the technology, so let me apply this to a problem we have and something that we can enhance in the industry. And seeing multiple big players involved is encouraging.

Some have said that the greatest use of blockchain in healthcare could be improving on how HIEs (health information exchanges) operate today. Do you agree?

Yetter: I don’t think this is achievable in the short term, and there is the bigger picture of truly getting to a complete HIE—and when I say complete, I mean the truly clinical data that is shared between entities, and ideally something that is more accessible to the patient. The ingredients are there for blockchain to make that significantly more usable, and something that can be potentially controlled and accessed by the actual patient or member. And the patient or member can then have the ability to access the information, and also to permission through some of the mechanisms through blockchain, the sharing of that data or specific parts of the data to others who need it in the healthcare environment. There is a lot of good capabilities there that will evolve in this direction to have blockchain enabling more advanced HIEs, but it will be several steps along the pathway before we truly get to that transformation.

Ghosh: Part of this [potential] disruptive model is that it’s the true democratization of healthcare data—if my data is now being “streamed” into a blockchain, I have ownership of it. So the hypothesis of value here is that if the individual can control his or her data, and then can choose who to share it with—the plan, provider, or someone like Nike or Under Armour—the concept is that there are rewards, such as avoiding rehospitalizations.

How can healthcare organizations better prepare their infrastructures now to implement blockchain in the future?

Yetter: I think the blockchain [implementation] would be more of an add-on, especially in the near term. And I think you will see some of the major vendors out there, be it EHR or adjudication systems, start to consider and build in aspects of blockchain into their own platforms. So there will be a broader enablement that will naturally flow into the infrastructure as it moves forward. But in the near term, there is a good opportunity to add blockchain capabilities to what they already have, and then leverage it for specific cases of pilots or at-scale activities.

Ghosh: The big thing to recognize is that the way enterprise blockchain is evolving, from an infrastructure perspective, it is becoming augmentative rather than disruptive. So you can take an EHR and then you can augment the whole EHR workflow, from encounter to discharge, on the blockchain, [while maintaining] what the traditional EHR looks like. You don’t have to transmit all the data, like you would do in a data warehouse, into another ecosystem. You can leave it as source and hash parts of it on the blockchain as you build the blocks along the workflow. The enterprise blockchain vendors are making this easy to adopt.

There has been plenty of back-and-forth about just how much security blockchain can provide. What are your thoughts on this?

Ghosh: Anytime you encrypt data, it can always be decrypted. A blockchain is nothing but a distributed database at the end of the day. If you have access to that database that doesn’t have a consensus mechanism attached to it, then it is a little insecure. Looking at the T.J. Maxx breach a few years ago, people were swiping their credit cards and the transmission from the point of fail system to the storage system was being intercepted; that was the hack. In the same way, from the time that the traditional system would write to the blockchain, you can intercept that data, and that’s when the insecurity could come into play. And those standards are still evolving. There is no vendor out there that can not only encrypt the transmission protocols between source and blockchain, but also ensure that the blockchain itself is secure.  

What predictions could you offer for blockchain’s continued evolution in healthcare?

Yetter: In 12 to 24 months, you will see a lot of fast-moving activity, and with the changing nature of conversations and the work being done now, there is a clear signal that we are at a bit of an inflection point. But I think we will accelerate the meaningful work in this space and bring the technology in. Going back to the idea of acceptance and use of emerging technologies in other sectors first, we are seeing blockchain in place in financial institutions in meaningful ways. So in the next year or two, I think we will see the same thing in healthcare, whether it’s aspects around provider data, or getting into exposing things to the patient or member so they have greater control. We’ll see a lot of energy and investment in that space.

Ghosh: I think that beyond the pilots that you see today, the voice of the customer will be increasingly automated with enterprise blockchain. Within healthcare, the issue is, how do you provide greater autonomy, depending on who has the data and where? It’s not one or two companies that are trying to do something; it’s five or 10 that want to get together before someone else beats them to it.

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