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HLTH, The Future of Healthcare Event: Six Blockchain Observations

Back in 1988, as a newly minted, 21-year-old human resources professional, I attended my first American Hospital Association convention at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.

The vastness of this hotel complex combined with the thousands of visitors that were in attendance made this an utterly overwhelming experience. 

This was a pivotal time for the healthcare industry: The system for classifying inpatient stays known as “DRGs” was taking shape, nurse and physician recruitment efforts were at a fever pitch, and unionization campaigns were sprouting up at hospitals and medical centers across the country. The internet wasn’t in existence, nor were there digital medical records.

Fast forward to HLTH — The Future of Healthcare event held on May 6 to 9 at the Aria Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas. Here, the tech world was in full swing with a wide swath of transformative, educational themes in the healthcare industry covered. Payers, providers, employers, policymakers, investors, startup leaders and others from the pharmaceutical, life sciences, government, hospital retail and health associations sectors were in attendance, participating in robust conversations and exploring groundbreaking innovations in this space. 

While attending the myriad educational sessions and networking events at the conference, I was struck by what seemed to be an endless stream of robust conversations about the emerging intersection of blockchain technology and its uses in healthcare.

“What do you predict in terms of blockchain’s future impact and contribution to the industry?” one professorial-looking man inquired of me at lunch. “Will healthcare stakeholders embrace it? And will it succeed amid a healthcare system that is heavily siloed and complex?” 

These were among the many questions about distributed ledger technology that were asked within earshot of me throughout the conference. 

Some of these questions, or similar ones, were also addressed by two of the conference headliners, David T. Feinberg, president and CEO of Geisinger Health System, and Anne Wojcicki, CEO and co-founder of the genetic testing site 23andMe. 

In the opening session, Feinberg held the audience in rapt attention with his groundbreaking announcement that Geisinger will soon be integrating  genetic sequencing as part of its routine care for patients. A couple of days later, Wojcicki gave a riveting speech underscoring the theme: "Healthcare is ripe for innovation.”

While HLTH covered a broad swath of topics focusing on the digital evolution taking place in healthcare, blockchain technology was well represented at the conference. Here are a few observations and sobering realities I walked away with.

1. Industry Resistance to Change

A colleague of mine, tech futurist and author Dan Burrus, often says that “technology is no longer holding us back. Egos, lies, and protecting the status quo are the main barriers to successful change initiatives.” 

I believe this is true with respect to the healthcare industry. Many attendees of HLTH told me that while there is a ton of enthusiasm and promise around blockchain technology’s healthcare applications, industry incumbents and entrenched factions within the industry are simply not ready to shift their business models. It will be interesting to see how all of this shapes up. 

2. Blockchains as the Ultimate Data Security Fix

There was lots of chatter at the HLTH conference about data privacy and security concerns within the industry. And for good reason, based on this report. In fact, when a question was posed to a group of panelists at the HLTH session entitled “Blockchain at Scale — Hype or Hope” about blockchain technology as the panacea security solution, Ted Tanner of PokitDok offered this: “Is blockchain [technology] a far better solution? Yes. Perfect solution? No!”

3. What Is a Blockchain?

I am always taken aback a bit when someone at a tech conference like HLTH asks me for an elementary explanation of what blockchain technology is. Getting this question from a Lyft driver is one thing. But a veteran data scientist that has no clue? Now that’s shocking. Maybe that’s why, in the aforementioned conference session, “Blockchain at Scale — Hype or Hope,” one of the first questions posed to the panelists sought to clarify “why Bitcoin is not blockchain.”

4. Blockchain Technology’s Value Proposition

When another one of the panelists, Jay Sales, director at VSP Global, kept harping about the importance of “practical proof of value” with blockchain technology, I wanted to give him a high-five. Because, sadly, we’re seeing a tsunami of healthcare projects with supposed blockchain solutions that, while probably well-intentioned, amount to nothing more than a white paper and a website. There’s a need to reverse the order in which these solutions are developed and to boost blockchain technology’s legitimacy in the healthcare space.

5. The Consumer Data Ownership Movement Will Be Big, But …  

I predict that talk about average, everyday people being able to control their own data through one of the many blockchain solutions being proposed will not sit well with the healthcare industry. In fact, at a lunch session I attended, one of the folks mentioned health data as an asset category that will one day be driven by consumers themselves using a blockchain. An eerie silence followed.

6. Tokenized Models Loom Large 

 Again, Jay Sales of VSP Global stunned the HLTH “Blockchain at Scale” panel discussion when he mentioned that the 270/271 Health Care Eligibility Model, which allows a monetary float on healthcare transactions, is on its way out. He said that tokenization will be the underpinning of a new business here and that blockchain technology is the trust mechanism that holds the most promise in this space.

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