Bitcoin may be the best-known user of blockchain technology. (Photo: Allison Bell/LHP)

Interest in using blockchain technology in the health care sector continues to increase. Most recently, a federal agency is asking for white papers on the use of blockchain technology in the health care field and for health research.

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has asked for these white papers as part of a competition in which winners can present their papers at an upcoming industrywide workshop co-hosted with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

This outreach illustrates growing governmental interest in blockchain technology. Basically, blockchains are data structures that can be signed and time-stamped using “a private key to prevent tampering,” according to the announcement in the Federal Register.

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It also shows that issues of privacy and access to data may arise as blockchain technology is used for such health-related fields as portable electronic health records. There clearly is potential use of the technology for these records, experts say.

“Potentially, it would give users much more control over who has a right to access data and at what point in time,” Christian Catalini, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, said.

For instance, patients could revoke access to electronic health records to a provider if providers are switched, Catalini said. As a result, providers would only be given temporary access to these patient records.

Privacy potential

Blockchain technology would be useful, too, as in the next few years, electronic health records could become portable among institutions and providers. These records may detail many attributes about patients and list various personal identifying information.

It would also allow health data to be given to researchers who need temporary access while doing a medical/health study. There also can be access to fitness trackers and data that could be analyzed.

But Catalini cautions it is going to take some time for the commercial applications of blockchain technology in the health care field to be put into use. “The technology is still at a very early stage,” he said.

Proponents of blockchain say it not only helps with privacy and security issues for health records, but also the scalability of health records, according to the federal announcement. But the announcement pointed out that critics warn “it would take enormous processing power and specialized equipment that far exceeds the benefits.”

“Although most would acknowledge blockchain’s potential, it is still evolving and maturing, especially with respect to its applicability to the health care,” the announcement said.

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Originally published in Legaltech News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.