CDC IT Leader Details Progress on Developing an EHR Blockchain

Oct. 2, 2018
Askari Rizvi, chief of the technical services branch of the CDC’s Division of Health Care Statistics, discusses a CDC-IBM collaboration to develop a proof of concept for an EHR blockchain.

Blockchain is an innovative technology that has garnered a significant amount of interest across many industries, and, within the U.S. healthcare industry, thought leaders and innovators continue to weigh in on the potential opportunities, and the countless complexities, around the adoption of blockchain technologies.

Many healthcare organizations are pushing forward with pilot projects and proof of concept initiatives to explore the development of blockchain and distributed ledger technologies, yet this is a technology that is still very much in its nascent stages. Potential use cases for blockchain in healthcare will be topic of discussion by a panel of experts during the Healthcare Informatics Beverly Hills Health IT Summit, scheduled for November 8-9 at the Sofitel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills.

As noted in a Fast Company article, companies like IBM and Microsoft are exploring how the technology can be used in traditional industries to sync up data like logs and transaction records between business associates, like health providers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). IBM and the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics are collaborating to build a proof of concept for an electronic health record (EHR) blockchain, and there is the potential for the technology to be used as a data system that could track public health issues.

The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics collects a large amount of health data from surveys. The blockchain project is focused on the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS), which is a national survey designed to provide information about the provision of medical care services in office-based physician practices in the U.S. NAMCS is designed to meet the need for objective, reliable information about the provision and use of ambulatory medical care services in the United States. Findings are based on a sample of visits to non-federally employed office-based physicians who are primarily engaged in direct patient care and, starting in 2006, a separate sample of visits to community health centers, according to the CDC’s website.

Askari Rizvi, chief of the technical services branch of the CDC’s Division of Health Care Statistics, says the CDC looks for innovative solutions to resolve business problems and is developing a blockchain use case to potentially see what types of current and future EHR data collection challenges can be addressed. Rizvi recently spoke with Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Heather Landi about this proof of concept project, what project leaders have learned so far about blockchain’s potential and what they hope to accomplish with the project. Below are excerpts of that interview.

What is the CDC-IBM blockchain collaboration focused on and what is the aim of the project?

The collaboration started about a year and a half ago. The CDC has an official collaborative agreement with IBM. The CDC is a large organization, and we have a lot of different centers and I’m part of the National Center for Health Statistics. The CDC’s Innovations Committee reached out to several centers to see if anyone had a project to utilize blockchain for, and I made a case for the EHR proof of concept on a blockchain project, and it was well received within the CDC community along with IBM as well. I picked one of our services, called the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, or NAMCS, and we based the proof of concept on the NAMCS to get us started. Currently, it’s quite a process to capture that data [for the NAMCS], so the idea is to capture EHR data, so that we can bypass a lot of that and so we can get the data in real-time.

Askari Rizvi

We have created a proof of concept, but we do have a small application where we can demo the project. I’ve spoken at a number of conferences and events where we have demoed the project. The entire project is hosted at IBM and it is a research and development project. It does not have any real data. I want to be very clear because we take privacy and security extremely seriously here at NAMCS; all the data that in this proof of concept is completely synthetic data. And, because it is an R&D project, and there’s no real data involved, we could put it offshore. There’s a lot of legislation and regulations we would normally follow in a traditional federal application, which you don’t have to do when you’re doing a research and development project. But as we move toward a production solution, which would be a long-term strategy, then we would need to get the appropriate approvals and the authority to operate.

Based on what you have seen so far, what are the benefits of using blockchain?

Essentially, we’ve created a promising EHR blockchain proof of concept based off our NAMCS. Thus far, the primary benefits that seem quite promising are consent management, sharing of data, enhanced privacy and security controls and embedded audit trails. The long-term vision is to be able to collect large sets of data, which should provide researchers and organizations the ability to develop deeper insights and trends. We are at a stage with our proof of concept where we are recruiting for partners, specifically EHR vendors. The vision is to partner up with EHR vendors to build capability in our solution where the sharing of the data becomes simple for the providers, and, at that point, all we would need is consent from the providers.

What drew your interest to exploring blockchain technology? Are there particular challenges that blockchain might help to solve?

I have a hefty background in IT; I’ve been doing it for a few decades. Anytime I see a new technology, I’m interested in finding out what it has to offer, so essentially, that is what piqued my interest. By no means am I a blockchain expert. It was more so as an R&D project, to see what it is and how can it possibly help us manage our national healthcare surveys. As we’ve been through a series of meetings and working sessions, we began to realize that it will enhance the privacy and security of our service, which is always a key aspect, along with better sharing of the data, consent management, and the audit trails.

But, besides that, there was another primary goal. The survey response rates have been declining throughout the industry, so we wanted to think out of the box in order to compensate for that. The idea was if we can build a solution with EHR vendors or these larger systems that host a lot of the data that we need for research, then it would become a lot easier. We would have larger data sets, and we would have them in real-time; there wouldn’t be any issues with the frequency of the data that we are receiving. Some people describe blockchain as a decentralized database, and it really depends on the model that we create going forward. We’re flexible; we have capped the proof of concept at a very high level in terms of flexibility, because depending on the partners that we select, we want to make things as easy as possible for them. I think for the next steps, once we have a number of partners, then we would ask for them to send data from their EHR system and then we would move forward.

What are the next steps with this project, and what is the long-term goal?

What we’ve built so far, it is promising. I see that it does offer several benefits, in terms of privacy and security and audit trails. For the next steps, when we’re able to get a number of providers and if we’re able to build a bridge, or let’s say [the providers] are a node on our blockchain, then it becomes easier to share data from that EHR system for any of the providers, because we would build that bridge between our application and the different EHR vendors. All the providers would need to do is to give us consent, and then we would have that data, from that EHR system. It’s a very long-term strategy. It’s not going to be done any time in the next few months. It is a holy grail of where we are headed, and then we can tap into the data, and depending on the different data sets, we can even enhance the data collection that we currently do. There are many data elements that we collect, and EHR systems have a lot more data elements, so we’re increasing our ability to capture additional data sets, and then providing the flexibility for researchers to be able to run their analysis, look at deeper insights, and come up with trends.

I just want to, again, that all the data for this blockchain prototype is completely synthetic; there is no real data that we’re using here. And, I want to be clear on our current state versus our “to-be” state. So, current state is, we have developed this proof of concept, it’s off-site, no data, and, on top of that, we’re simulating providers. The “to-be” state would be to get providers, partner up with them, start collecting synthetic data from them and then moving toward production state.

What does the status of this proof of concept signify to you about the potential for blockchain adoption in healthcare? Do you see other potential use cases?

There are a number of different centers in CDC that are focused on solving different business problems for CDC, and their mission and goals are very different. I think blockchain could be used for a number of those business units. The idea over here is to get this R&D project off the ground, get it working, have providers on board and move forward towards a production stage. I think that will open things up where others can see that this product looks promising and that it could resolve certain issues. People use blockchain for supply chain management, so another use case could be where the CDC could see the different areas when you are tracking down let’s say, some sort of bacteria in a product. If you have a system that’s developed on a blockchain, you can see where that product originated from. Essentially, you could work your way backwards, go all the way to the origins of where that product came from, and you could identify the source. That would be another use case.

Moving forward, what are some of the potential challenges with this project?

We’re at a juncture where we need to partner up with the EHR vendors or different providers or systems. I think that would be the current challenge, or the biggest challenge for us to face. We want to make sure we’re able to pick the right partners, so we can get something going and continue to make progress.

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