The healthcare field is abuzz with the crypto-currency technology behind the bitcoin payment network in hopes it could provide more robust data security solutions to ward off cyberattacks.

Software virus attacks are becoming more common in today’s computer-dependent society, and the healthcare industry has not been immune to them. A year ago, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles was the target of a malware attack and eventually paid $17,000 worth of bitcoin to the hackers to have its computer systems restored.

In a twist of irony, health IT and security experts are investigating ways to use the technology behind bitcoin, called blockchain, as a way to make interoperability more secure.

The jargon can be confusing, but basically blockchain technology is described as a software platform for digital assets that serves as a currency transaction database for bitcoin.

Blockchain solutions was a topic of discussion at the HIMSS 2017 annual conference in Orlando in February, and some industry experts believe it will be a focal point of the 2018 expo.

It has shown enough promise to grab the interest of Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the National Coordinator for HHealth IT, which co-hosted a blockchain event in Washington, D.C., on March 14-15 with The Chamber of Digital Commerce. It was billed as a Code-A-Thon, where IT contestants were challenged to create blockchain technology-based applications and solutions for the healthcare industry.

Experts are hoping blockchain technology can be used to securely aggregate, link, and share patient data with destinations of their choosing. Whenever digital transactions occur simultaneously, bits of code are grouped into encrypted “blocks” and patients’ interactions and personal data are stored in “ledgers” that providers can access (Wired, Feb. 2, 2017).

For bitcoin, blocks are used during periods of intense buying and selling. For healthcare, it could be used to block complex procedures such as knee or hip replacement. Providers would use a private keycode to access the ledgers and see a complete patient history. Theoretically, this process would limit the constant data transmissions that often make systems susceptible to malware attacks.

While still in the exploration phase in healthcare, there are some prototypes that chief information officers and their departments could look at. MedRec, for example, is an authentication log that uses a cryptographic hash in its blockchain to establish a baseline of original content that provides a check against tampering.

Which there is still much to be researched, it’s clear that the healthcare industry is hungry for security solutions. Expect to hear more about the blockchain concept as we progress through 2017.

Chris Silva is an analyst at DRG and specializes in information technology, telehealth, and big data, among other topics. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisSilvaDRG.

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