A new research initiative between IBM Watson Health and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), announced Wednesday, could make it easier and safer for medical professionals to share sensitive health data. The two firms will be examining the potential uses of blockchain technology to build out a secure exchange for data related to healthcare, according to a press release.

For those unfamiliar, the blockchain is a master ledger, or database, of all the transactions relative to a given set of data. This metadata around the transactions is open to all members of a given network, and is said to be tamper-proof. Blockchain is one of the underlying technologies behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, but has been used for other data as well.

“By keeping an audit trail of all transactions on an unalterable distributed ledger, blockchain technology establishes accountability and transparency in the data exchange process,” the press release said. “In the past, large scale sharing of health data has been limited by concerns of data security and breaches of patient privacy during the data exchange process.”

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To start, IBM and the FDA will be looking at “owner mediated data” from sources such as genomic data, clinical trials, Electronic Medical Records (EMR), and smartphones and other connected devices, the release said. The initial target of the research is oncology data.

IBM and the FDA are hopeful that the improved exchange of such data could lead to new medical discoveries and improved public health, the release said. Another goal is to give patients better access to their own data, and make it easier for them to share this data with doctors and other researchers.

A survey of 200 healthcare executives found that more than 70% felt blockchain could help manage clinical trials and meet compliance for health records, according to an IBM Institute for Business Value paper cited in the press release.

“Blockchain is a natural solution to e-pedigree and supply chain and product integrity challenges faced by pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies,” IDC general manager Scott Lundstrom said in the press release. “Additional development may allow blockchain to serve as a distributed, immutable patient record that can be secured and shared to accelerate the drug discovery process.”

This research initiative isn’t IBM’s first time working with the blockchain. In early 2016, Big Blue began working to deliver blockchain “as-a-service” and contributed heavily to the open-source Hyperledger Project. Later that year, IBM began working with SBI Securities to test out bond trading on the blockchain as well.

The research initiative between IBM and the FDA is slated to last two years, and the organizations will share their initial findings sometime in 2017.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. IBM Watson and the FDA are beginning research into using blockchain technology to power a secure exchange of healthcare data.
  2. The research initiative could give patients better access to their own data, and potentially lead to new medical discoveries.
  3. IBM has also worked on the Hyperledger Project and tested out blockchain technology in bond trading.