Ascension's CIO on joining blockchain pilot project

St. Louis-based Ascension on Dec. 3 added a health system perspective to a blockchain technology-driven effort to improve data quality and reduce administrative costs related to updating and maintaining provider demographic data.

The Synaptic Health Alliance pilot project, launched in April, also includes UnitedHealth Group and its subsidiary, Optum; Humana; Secaucus, N.J.-based Quest Diagnostics; Aetna; and MultiPlan.

Ascension and Aetna are the latest alliance members. They said the alliance is looking at how blockchain technology could help ensure up-to-date healthcare provider information is available in health plan provider directories, so patients can have the most accurate information possible.

Gerry Lewis, Ascension senior vice president and CIO, spoke with Becker's about the project, including why Ascension got involved and what it means for the health system.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What prompted Ascension to join the Synaptic Health Alliance pilot project?

Gerry Lewis: What peaked our interest was that group — an eclectic group that's got a significant amount of market presence — is exploring how blockchain technology can be used to actively share data while improving the consumer experience. We were interested in how we can play a part in that in terms of improving the engagement with consumers and providers and payers. We then contacted Optum and started working with them and wanted to understand how they were thinking about the project. What we wanted to do is to learn and understand how this would be operationalized, and we got comfortable in terms of what that direction was. That's why we made the decision that we wanted to not only invest resources but also have our team start to work with these other teams. I think this problem [has] to be solved with a multidimensional team focused on consumers of healthcare, on providers and payers.

Q: What does this alliance mean for Ascension? 

GL: This is for us step one of probably a 200 or 300-step dance. How do we work with our payer partners, our providers, our clinical offices to ease the administrative burden of providing synchronized provider information across the organization? When you think about it, it's a pretty easy concept but hard to keep in sync, just because the environment is very fluid. The alliance is an opportunity for us to take a step forward in terms of how we leverage technology to ensure we are providing the right information at time of check-in so we have the right information to make decisions on. In this case, as we check folks in, as they engage with our front-office providers.

Q: How could this project effect the revenue cycle?

GL: When a patient checks in, the blockchain provides insurer reimbursement information to the provider so they know exactly what the arrangement is. And then obviously they can engage. Instead of waiting 90 days to complete the transaction, that transaction can be completed almost instantaneously. If it's at check-in or you have the right data information to inform the patient of cost information, I think that would just make the process more fluid vs. the lag time the industry has today.

Q: What are Ascension's goals with the project?

GL: Of course, the first is how do we start talking to one another along the continuum? How do we validate data accuracy to that single record of truth in terms of place of service? Synchronizing that information to improve the ability to have more efficient claims, and the referral transactions between payers, providers and consumers, is really what we're looking at as that first set of steps. As we think about claims information and demographic information, [we see opportunities to] start to empower consumer[s] with clinical information so [they] can leverage that information and … have the information to make those next informed clinical decisions. From my perspective, we're starting to see the viability of the technology start to grow. For instance, Amazon announced fairly recently some significant support for blockchain and how they were going to orient that into their overall architecture. We think the opportunity [is] right for us to consider this in terms of providing better care and more effective care to our patients and the community we serve.

Q: What does the project mean for healthcare in general?

GL: The problem that healthcare has is the lack of ability to share information across care venues, and I think the efforts of the alliance are really looking at how do we think about sharing data across the continuum by enabling these horizontal data-sharing opportunities leveraging this technology. We have been very vertically focused —whether it's acute care, ambulatory care, payer, provider [or] consumer. [This project presents the] opportunity to turn those things upside down and create [a] horizontal journey and experience. I think there is a significant opportunity to … share by synchronizing that information securely across that pathway, and that's why we're interested here. We're crawling here. We're not to the run and walk stages yet, but I think we'll get there, especially with this alliance and with some of the market presence the partners have across different venues.


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