FDA taps IBM to explore blockchain technology for medical data


Blockchain technology is emerging as a major force for change in the financial world, but some argue that its true potential may lie in managing medical data. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has commissioned IBM Corp. to find out.

Under a new two-year collaboration that was launched today, their researchers will jointly explore how a blockchain-based system could be used for storing electronic healthcare records. This push marks one of the first serious attempts to bring the technology into the medical sector. Most of the other initiatives out there are fairly small-scale projects such as the MedRec platform that the MIT Media Lab and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center introduced last August.

Yet while they may vary the scope, the goal is similar. IBM and the FDA hope to ease the management of healthcare records by taking advantage of the blockchain model’s unique operational advantages, starting with its powerful security mechanism.

To prevent the forgery or corruption of information, systems that implement the technology store records in a chronological order based on their date of creation. Every new entry, or block, contains a snippet of data known as a hash that is derived from the contents of the previous entry. These hashes form a sort of link that connects every block to its predecessor, thus forming a chain of activity logs that stretches all the way back to the first entry.

Modifying a block consequently has the effect of creating an inconsistency with the hash inside the next one, which requires that entry to be forged as well and so on ad infinitum. The result is that tampering with a blockchain becomes practically impossible without risking detection. As IBM sees it, this feature can theoretically prove incredibly useful for storing health care records given their sensitivity.

Equally important for the purposes of its collaboration with the FDA is blockchains’ flexibility. In the financial world, some institutions are employing the technology to dramatically speed stock transactions that currently take days to complete. Applied to the healthcare sector, this could enable providers to share patient records, clinical trial results and other data incomparably faster than they can now.

IBM and the FDA hope that easing access to medical information will lead to better treatment. Their partnership will initially focus on oncology, a field where the technology giant already has experience with supporting data-based care. Its Watson artificial intelligence recently made headlines after consulting 20 million oncological studies to correctly diagnose a leukemia patient in Japan whose condition had eluded doctors.

If IBM’s and the FDA’s efforts yield fruit, highly accurate computerized diagnosis may become the norm. The company could gain a lot of competitive ground in the process: It sells a cloud-based blockchain implementation designed with regulated industries in mind. The more medical institutions join the blockchain bandwagon, the broader its addressable market will become.

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