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IBM Partners with the CDC to Bring Blockchains to Public Health

In Watson Health’s panel discussion at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York, IBM’s Chief Science Officer Shahram Ebadollahi announced that IBM Watson Health has signed an agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to explore the benefits of blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) in the health sector. The CDC and Watson Health expect the joint effort to also boost DLT adoption across U.S. government agencies.

“This is, in essence, an extension of the work we’ve been doing this year with the FDA,” said Ebadollahi, “exploring owner-mediated data exchange using blockchain [technology].”

In January, IBM Watson Health established a partnership with the FDA to define a secure, efficient and scalable exchange of health data using blockchain technology, with an initial focus on oncology-related data. IBM and the FDA are exploring the exchange of owner-mediated data from several sources, such as electronic medical records, clinical trials, genomic data and health data from mobile devices, wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT).

In 2016, IBM and the New York Genome Center partnered to create a comprehensive and open repository of genetic data to accelerate cancer research and scale access to precision medicine using Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence (AI) system.

According to Ebadollahi, the CDC will issue a more detailed announcement about the partnership with Watson Health. The CDC is working on several proofs of concept based on blockchain technology, and plans to build real DLT applications for the public health sector next year, as recently reported by MIT Technology Review.

“Public health and blockchain [technology] really do belong together,” said Jim Nasr, chief software architect at the CDC’s Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services. “Moving that data from one peer to another in a secure manner, in a compliant manner and in a transparent manner — as quickly as possible — is a key part of the business model.”

Nasr added that DLT could give the CDC a way to store and share health data much faster while complying with security and privacy laws, which could be especially important during a public health crisis like a pandemic.

Ebadollahi and IBM’s Chief Health Officer Kyu Rhee elaborated on the possibilities of combining blockchain and AI technologies — two strategic technologies that IBM is vigorously pursuing — for enabling healthcare providers to deliver more effective services. The new services would use DLT to securely manage and share data and AI to extract actionable information and patterns from the data.

“When a bunch of physicists collaborated and created this thing called the World Wide Web a few decades ago, nobody imagined Facebook and Google and Amazon,” said Ebadollahi. “With blockchain [technology] we can collect data and extract insights through AI, and the future will have an economy around that we can hardly even imagine right now.”

According to Rhee, AI is where the internet was in 1993, and AI applications in healthcare will see momentous growth in the next decades. In Rhee’s estimation, the amount of research and clinical data in the healthcare sector is exploding, and no unaided specialist can keep up.

“Blockchain [technology] is very useful when there are so many actors in the system,” said Ebadollahi. “It enables the ecosystem of data in healthcare to have more fluidity.”

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