Blockchains, EHRs, roadblocks and baby steps

TTA founder and former editor Steve Hards crawls out of his retirement tent to squint at the misty landscape of blockchain technology.

In a recent dream I was observing an auditorium full of people chanting “Blockchain! Blockchain! Blockchain!” and yes, mantra-like, blockchain is now popping up all the time in health technology articles and presentations.

It has taken a while to get to this stage. It was January 2016 when Editor-in-Chief Donna first mentioned blockchain. Since then there appears to have been more talk than action.

A year ago, in February 2017, health IT guru Brian Ahier was able to say in a comment here “Blockchain of course, is going to sneak up on a lot of people…”

Where we have seen developments occurring is in the trickle of ‘coins’ or ‘tokens’ in health-related Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) of dubious investment worthiness. I may rant about those in a follow-up article if anyone is interested. (Let me know in a comment.)

The terminology is still in its ‘shakedown phase’ (see this great terminology rant) and, because of the publicity around Bitcoin, which is on a blockchain, the distinction between blockchains and distributed ledger databases is blurred. There are technical differences: blockchains are a sub-set of distributed ledgers (Wikipedia), which is the term I’ll generally use in this article.

Distributed ledgers and EHRs

What are the implications of distributed ledgers for the biggest databases in healthcare, electronic health records (EHRs)?

The two principal characteristics that differentiate distributed ledgers from the databases with which we are familiar are that they are more robust and, potentially, more private. Some even claim to be quantum computing hack proof although we will have to wait for hackers with quantum computers to test that.

Traditional databases are formed from one large or several linked entities that have a centralised control from where performance, data integrity and security are monitored and managed. There are human and technological factors that introduce weaknesses to all such systems, as the number of data breaches reported here over the years testify.

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Rounding up the roundups in health tech and digital health for 2017; looking forward to 2018’s Nitty-Gritty

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Lasso.jpg” thumb_width=”100″ /]Our Editors will be lassoing our thoughts for what happened in 2017 and looking forward to 2018 in several articles. So let’s get started! Happy Trails!

2017’s digital health M&A is well-covered by Jonah Comstock’s Mobihealthnews overview. In this aggregation, the M&A trends to be seen are 1) merging of services that are rather alike (e.g. two diabetes app/education or telehealth/telemedicine providers) to buy market share, 2) services that complement each other by being similar but with strengths in different markets or broaden capabilities (Teladoc and Best Doctors, GlobalMed and TreatMD), 3) fill a gap in a portfolio (Philips‘ various acquisitions), or 4) payers trying yet again to cement themselves into digital health, which has had a checkered record indeed. This consolidation is to be expected in a fluid and relatively early stage environment.

In this roundup, we miss the telecom moves of prior years, most of which have misfired. WebMD, once an acquirer, once on the ropes, is being acquired into a fully corporate info provider structure with its pending acquisition by KKR’s Internet Brands, an information SaaS/web hoster in multiple verticals. This points to the commodification of healthcare information. 

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/canary-in-the-coal-mine.jpgw595.jpeg” thumb_width=”150″ /]Love that canary! We have a paradigm breaker in the pending CVS-Aetna merger into the very structure of how healthcare can be made more convenient, delivered, billed, and paid for–if it is approved and not challenged, which is a very real possibility. Over the next two years, if this works, look for supermarkets to get into the healthcare business. Payers, drug stores, and retailers have few places to go. The worldwide wild card: Walgreens Boots. Start with our article here and move to our previous articles linked at the end.

US telehealth and telemedicine’s march towards reimbursement and parity payment continues. See our article on the CCHP roundup and policy paper (for the most stalwart of wonks only). Another major change in the US is payment for more services under Medicare, issued in early November by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in its Final Rule for the 2018 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule. This also increases payment to nearly $60 per month for remote patient monitoring, which will help struggling RPM providers. Not quite a stride, but less of a stumble for the Grizzled Survivors. MedCityNews

In the UK, our friends at The King’s Fund have rounded up their most popular content of 2017 here. Newer models of telehealth and telemedicine such as Babylon Health and PushDoctor continue to struggle to find a place in the national structure. (Babylon’s challenge to the CQC was dropped before Christmas at their cost of £11,000 in High Court costs.) Judging from our Tender Alerts, compared to the US, telecare integration into housing is far ahead for those most in need especially in support at home. Yet there are glaring disparities due to funding–witness the national scandal of NHS Kernow withdrawing telehealth from local residents earlier this year [TTA coverage here]. This Editor is pleased to report that as of 5 December, NHS Kernow’s Governing Body has approved plans to retain and reconfigure Telehealth services, working in partnership with the provider Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (CFT). Their notice is here.

More UK roundups are available on Digital Health News: 2017 review, most read stories, and cybersecurity predictions for 2018. David Doherty’s compiled a group of the major international health tech events for 2018 over at 3G Doctor. Which reminds this Editor to tell him to list #MedMo18 November 29-30 in NYC and that he might want to consider updating the name to 5G Doctor to mark the transition over to 5G wireless service advancing in 2018.

Data breaches continue to be a worry. The Protenus/DataBreaches.net roundup for November continues the breach a day trend. The largest breach they detected was of over 16,000 patient records at the Hackensack Sleep and Pulmonary Center in New Jersey. The monthly total was almost 84,000 records, a low compared to the prior few months, but there may be some reporting shifting into December. Protenus blog, MedCityNews

And perhaps there’s a future for wearables, in the watch form. The Apple Watch’s disconnecting from the phone (and the slowness of older models) has led to companies like AliveCor’s KardiaBand EKG (ECG) providing add-ons to the watch. Apple is trying to develop its own non-invasive blood glucose monitor, with Alphabet’s (Google) Verily Study Watch in test having sensors that can collect data on heart rate, gait and skin temperature. More here from CNBC on Big Tech and healthcare, Apple’s wearables.

Telehealth saves lives, as an Australian nurse at an isolated Coral Bay clinic found out. He hooked himself up to the ECG machine and dialed into the Emergency Telehealth Service (ETS). With assistance from volunteers, he was able to medicate himself with clotbusters until the Royal Flying Doctor Service transferred him to a Perth hospital. Now if he had a KardiaBand….WAToday.com.au  Hat tip to Mike Clark

This Editor’s parting words for 2017 will be right down to the Real Nitty-Gritty, so read on!: (more…)

Beyond crowdfunding–startup funding through blockchain cryptocurrency, smart contracts

Bitcoin + Smart Contracts or Bust! A surprise to this Editor was that Bitcoin (on 14 Aug an eye-blinking $4,400) has a host of ‘currency token’ competitors–Ethereum‘s Ether ($286), DCorp‘s DRP, and others in the wings waiting for their initial coin offerings (ICOs). These cryptocurrencies, while still hard to use (don’t try to shop for groceries with them), are demonstrating credible, real-world value despite shady uses in hacking.

The tech behind currency tokens, blockchain, with its distributed data ledger also offers another more intriguing development beyond what this Editor has noted in healthcare [TTA 16 July 165 Apr]–smart contracts. These are built on blockchain that stores, verifies, and executes the terms of an agreement without a middleman. This is proving to be high value–Royal Bank of Scotland is building a distributed clearing house to speed cross-border payments based on Ethereum’s distributed ledger and smart contracts tech. 

The combination of cryptocurrencies and smart contracts could create the next unregulated startup funding vector, according to this article in Forbes. It would more closely resemble an IPO, but using currency tokens. Smart contracts can also assure startup investors that entrepreneurs will be accountable and that investment and loan agreements will be enforced. The nearly unregulated world of crowdfunding has been surprisingly lucrative, with $34 billion invested in 2015. However, startups going this route had a high failure rate, nearly 40 percent, and crowdfunding is now more frequently used to test concepts and cause fundraising. We’ll see if blockchain-enabled funding becomes the Next Big (Funding) Thing. Hat tip to fellow NY Financial Writers Association member Katherine Heires of Mediakat.

Why do hackers love bitcoin? Blockchain. And why are healthcare, IoT liking blockchain?

Hackers love bitcoin for their ransomware payment because it’s virtual money, impossible to trace and encrypted to the n-th degree. Technically, bitcoin is not a transfer of payment–it IS money of the unregulated sort. The ransomee has to pay into a bitcoin exchange and then deliver the payment to the hacker. However, what sounds straightforward is actually fraught with risks, such as the bitcoin exchanges themselves as targets of hacking and the fluctuations of bitcoin value meaning that a ransom may not actually be paid in full. ID Experts‘ article gives the basics of bitcoin, what to expect and when paying a ransom is the prudent thing to do.

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/blockchain-in-HC.jpg” thumb_width=”200″ /]Turn what is behind bitcoin around though, and it becomes intriguing to HIT and IoT. Blockchain is “a distributed, secure transaction ledger that uses open-source technology to maintain data. Records are shared and distributed over many computers of entities that do not know each other; records can be time-stamped and signed using a private key to prevent tampering.” Each record block has an identifying hash that links each block into a virtual chain. (Wikipedia has a more complete description.) For bitcoin, it ensures security, anonymity and transferability without a central bank. For healthcare, distributed data and security is the exact opposite of the highly centralized, locked down approach of standard HIT to enable interoperability and security (left above). The Federal ONC-HIT (Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology) under HHS is soliciting up to 15 proposals for “Blockchain and Its Emerging Role in Healthcare and Health-related Research.” through July 29. Cash prizes range from $1,500 to $5,000. The final eight will present at the awards presentation September 26-27. Potential uses are:

  • Medical banking between dis-intermediated parties
  • Distributed EHRs
  • Inventory management
  • Forming a research “commons” and a remunerative model for data sharing
  • Identity verification for insurance purposes
  • An open “bazaar” for services that accommodates transparency in pricing

Health Data Management, Information Management, Federal Register announcement

A Hollywood ending? Medical center’s $17,000 ransom to recover systems from hack attack

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Hackermania.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]‘Hollywood’ Hulk Hogan is getting a workout! (UPDATED)

Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center paid $17,000 (40 bitcoins) last night to hackers to regain control of its IT systems after last week’s ‘ransomware’ attack forced them offline. According to CEO Allen Stefanek, “The quickest and most efficient way to restore our systems and administrative functions was to pay the ransom and obtain the decryption key.” HealthcareITNews has the details and the full CEO letter/press release, including that no patient or employee information appears to have been compromised.

Obviously there will be more to follow including the usual opining, but in this resolution and spin, a bad precedent has been set in this Editor’s view. Labeling it a ‘low-tech’ attack shines a Klieg light (this is Hollywood after all) on the vulnerability of this hospital’s system. They now have the decryption key to the malware, but what other bad code and general mischief is buried in their systems to crop up later?  Another question: was the inflated bitcoin number floated to make the paid ransom seem ‘affordable’? Is this a Hollywood ending where all is happy, or is this an episode in the continuing soap opera of ‘Hospital as Cash Machine’?

Our original article follows: (more…)