Last month, over September 26-27, I attended a US government workshop on The Use of Blockchain in Healthcare and Research, organised by the Department of Health & Human Services Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) and hosted at NIST headquarters at Gaithersburg, Maryland. The workshop showcased a number of winning entries from ONC's Blockchain Challenge, and brought together a number of experts and practitioners from NIST and the Department of Homeland Security.
I presented an invited paper "Blockchain's Challenges in Real Life" (PDF) alongside other new research by Mance Harmon from Ping Identity, and Drummond Reed from Respect Network. All the workshop presentations, the Blockchain Challenge winners' papers and a number of the unsuccessful submissions are available on the ONC website. You will find contributions from major computer companies and consultancies, leading medical schools and universities, and a number of unaffiliated researchers.
I also sat on a panel session about identity innovation, joining entrepreneurs from Digital Bazaar, Factom, Respect Network, and XCELERATE, all of which are conducting R&D projects funded by the DHS Science and Technology division.
Around the same time as the workshop, I happened to finalise two new Constellation Research papers, on security and R&D practices for blockchain technologies. And that was timely, because I am afraid that once again, I have immersed myself in some of the most current blockchain thinking, only to find that key pieces of the puzzle are still missing.
Disclosure: I traveled to the Blockchain in Healthcare workshop as a guest of ONC, which paid for my transport and accommodation.
Three observations from the Workshop
There were two things I just did not get as I read the winning Blockchain Challenge papers and listened to the presentations. And I observe that there is one crucial element that most of the proposals are missing
Firstly, one of the most common themes across all of the papers was interoperability. A great challenge in e-health is indeed interoperability. Disparate health systems speak different languages, using different codes for the same medical procedures. Adoption of new standard terminologies and messaging standards, like HL-7 and ICD, is infamously slow, often taking a decade or longer. Large clinical systems are notoriously complex to implement, so along the way they invariably undergo major customisation, which makes each installation peculiar to its setting, and resistant to interfacing with other systems.
In the USA, Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) have been a common response to these problems, the idea being that an intermediary switching system can broker understanding between local e-health programs. But as anyone in the industry knows, HIEs have been easier said than done, to say the least.
According to many of the ONC challenge papers, blockchain is supposed to bring a breakthrough, yet no one has explained how a ledger will make the semantics of all these e-health silos suddenly compatible. Blockchain is a very specific protocol that addresses the order of entries in a distributed ledger, to prevent Double Spend without an administrator. Nothing about blockchain's fundamentals relates to the contents of messages, healthcare semantics, medical codes and so on. It just doesn't "do" interoperability! The complexity in healthcare is intrinsic to the subject matter; it cannot be willed away with any new storage technology.
The second thing I just didn't get about the workshop was the idea that blockchain will fix healthcare information silos. Several speakers stressed the problem that data is fragmented, concentrated in local repositories, and hard to find when needed. All true, but I don't see what blockchain can do about this. A consensus was reached at the workshop that personal information and Protected Health Information (PHI) should not be stored on the blockchain in any significant amounts (not just because of its sensitivity but also the sheer volume of electronic health records and images in particular). So if we're agreed that the blockchain could only hold pointers to health data, what difference can it make to the current complex of record systems?
And my third problem at the workshop was the stark omission of key management. This is the central administrative challenge in any security system, of getting the right cryptographic keys and credentials into the right hands, so all parties can be sure who they are dealing with. The thing about blockchain is that it did away with key management. The genius of the original Bitcoin blockchain is it allows people to exchange guaranteed value without needing to know anything about each other. Blockchain actually dispenses with key management and it may be unique in the history of security for doing so (see also Blockchain has no meaning). But when we do need to know who's who in a health system – to be certain when various users really are authorised medicos, researchers, insurers or patients – then key management must return to the mix. And then things get complicated, much more complicated than the utopian setting of Bitcoin.
Moreover, healthcare is hierarchical. Inherent to the system are management structures, authorizations, credentialing bodies, quality assurance and audits – all the things that blockchain's creator Satoshi Nakamoto expressly tried to get rid of. As I explained in my workshop speech, if a blockchain deployment still has to involve third parties, then the benefits of the algorithm are lost. So said Nakamoto him/herself!
In my view, most blockchain for healthcare projects will discover, sooner or later, than once the necessary key management arrangements are taken care of, their choice of distributed ledger technology becomes inconsequential.
New Constellation Research on Blockchain Technologies
Security for blockchains and Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) have evolved quickly. As soon as interest in blockchain grew past crypto-currency into mainstream business applications, it became apparent that the core ledger would need to augmented with permissions for access control, and encryption for confidentiality. But what few people appreciate is that these measures conflict with the rationale of the original blockchain algorithm, which was expressly meant to dispel administration layers. The first of my new papers looks at these tensions, what they mean for public and private blockchain systems, paints a picture for third generation DLTs.
The uncomfortable marriage of ad hoc security and the early blockchain is indicative of a broader problem I've written about many times: too much blockchain "innovation" is proceeding with insufficient rigor. Which brings us to the second of my new papers. In the rush to apply blockchain to broader payments and real world assets, few entrepreneurs have been clear and precise about the problems they think they’re solving. If the R&D is not properly grounded, then the resulting solutions will be weak and will ultimately fail in the market. It must be appreciated that the original blockchain was only a prototype. Great care needs to be taken to learn from it and more rigorously adapt fast-evolving DLTs to enterprise needs.
Constellation ShortListTM for Distributed Ledger Technologies Labs
Finally, Constellation Research has launched a new product, the Constellation ShortListTM. These are punchy lists by our analysts of leading technologies in dozens of different categories, which will each be refreshed on a short cycle. The objective is to help buyers of technology when choosing offerings in new areas.
My Constellation ShortListTM for blockchain-related solution providers is now available here.