First, blockchain entered any number of ambitious healthcare startups. Then it got hold of Mayo Clinic. The secure data-transfer technology’s latest conquest? One of the country’s most respected hubs of medical innovation: the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Partnering with the Institute for Next Generation Healthcare, the institution today opened the Center for Biomedical Blockchain Research, a first-of-its-kind academic nucleus for blockchain and healthcare. The center’s heads, Joel Dudley, Ph.D., Mount Sinai’s executive vice president of precision health, and Noah Zimmerman, Ph.D., a genetics and genomics innovation professor, will explore “data-driven approaches and machine intelligence” to improve biology and healthcare. The research will supplement prior work in which Dudley leveraged electronic health record (EHR), wearables and other data to create predictive health apps.
But blockchain is a technology that many wide-eyed entrepreneurs have pursued, with no real application yet to emerge in healthcare. Mount Sinai could prove a key incubator, as few academic institutions have seriously examined blockchain’s potential roles in medicine.
“There is a lot of excitement around the possibilities for blockchain technology in healthcare,” Dudley said in a statement. “However, we still have lots of hard work ahead to identify the most salient features of blockchain technologies to solve real-world healthcare problems.”
Blockchain, of course, shot to prominence alongside bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that first used the secure, immutable, decentralized ledger technology. No data transaction that occurs on the blockchain can be erased or altered, and it relies on a peer-to-peer replication process to better ensure data integrity and breed trust.
These features have helped blockchain generate immeasurable hype in healthcare and elsewhere. Imagine, supporters say, the day when blockchain might shore up the defenses of, and foster interoperability between, EHR systems. Blockchain fanatics have also touted the technology as a path to patient empowerment, improved administrative functions and a solution to the problems plaguing the Internet of Things and nearly any other issue hindering healthcare.
Although Dudley acknowledged the hype, he said such challenges could indeed fuel blockchain’s first proven application for healthcare.
“The fragmented nature of regional and global healthcare systems prevents the flow of vital information and creates barriers to access for underserved groups,” he said. “We see the potential for blockchain and related technologies to enable applications that support more unified healthcare ecosystems and serve the greater goals of realizing national and global precision health networks.”
To do this, the Center for Biomedical Blockchain Research will examine and evaluate blockchain solutions, build partnerships with startups in the space and create its own blockchain-based systems for use in Mount Sinai.
Zimmerman touted Mount Sinai’s track record in biomedical data, machine learning and data governance as a good sign that the center will succeed.
“This experience will allow us to address many of the most promising uses for blockchain in biomedicine with the goal of improving healthcare delivery and reducing costs,” he added.
The establishment of the center follows news that Mayo Clinic had inked a deal with a startup to further explore blockchain’s role in healthcare, particularly the EHR.
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