What Optum, Humana, Ascension & more are doing to advance blockchain

For blockchain to be successful in healthcare, it needs to scale. This is why collaborations have been created between major healthcare organizations to grow the technology.

In April 2018, five healthcare giants — Humana, MultiPlan, Quest Diagnostics, UnitedHealthcare Group and Optum, launched the Synaptic Health Alliance, a pilot program using blockchain to ensure health plan provider directors include up-to-date physician information.

Since then, St. Louis-based Ascension and Aetna have joined the project.

Mike Jacobs is a technology fellow and senior vice president of engineering at Optum. Below, he discusses what Synaptic Health Alliance is doing to push blockchain forward in healthcare.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What is Synaptic Health Alliance’s No. 1 blockchain priority?

Mike Jacobs: The Synaptic Health Alliance views blockchain technology as a means to a critical end for the health care industry: efficient data management and sharing. We selected provider directories as our first use case and through our pilot project are exploring how blockchain technology can help ensure the most current health care provider information is available in the provider directories maintained by health plans. This information is essential to a high-functioning health care system and affects payers, providers and consumers, costing more than $2 billion annually to maintain. A permissioned blockchain solution could be a valuable industry utility, solving a critical and complex issue that organizations across the health care system have grappled with for a long time.

Q: What needs to happen for blockchain to become mainstream? Will this happen in the next 10 years?

MJ: To use blockchain productively, density of adoption is required. This means that a group of individuals or organizations must be willing to cooperate and contribute to making it work. One of the unique aspects of blockchain is that it is decentralized, and all participants are peers and play a part in its success. With that in mind, no matter what purpose the blockchain is being used for, a group or an alliance is necessary to use it effectively. Blockchain alliances are forming across health care as well as other industries and I expect that to continue over the next several years, which will contribute to faster adoption and velocity of the technology.

Q: How is blockchain being used in healthcare?

MJ: There’s a lot of hype and misinformation about what blockchain can and can’t do today. While a variety of different use cases have been identified, the use of blockchain is still in the early stages in healthcare. It is encouraging and exciting to see different organizations experimenting with it to manage certain health system processes, such as pharmaceutical tracking, claims and payment processing, and health information exchange.

Q: For people skeptical about blockchain, how do you generate buy-in?

MJ: Blockchain requires a different business mindset than a lot of other technologies and it is important to understand its efficacy to use it effectively. Many people associate blockchain with cryptocurrency, which is one way the technology has been leveraged for financial purposes. However, blockchain can be useful for a variety of different challenges in numerous industries.

In short, blockchain is a digital ledger of transactions – so it can be useful for tracking information and tracing it back to its original source without a middleman involved. With this in mind, blockchain is not the right “fix” for every data problem. Rather, blockchain is best suited to solve business problems involving 1) multiple silos of data, 2) a high cost to reconcile inconsistent data, and 3) lack of complete trust between collaborating parties.

Since blockchain is so new, it is likely easier to generate buy-in from people and organizations who consider themselves early adopters, are flexible, willing to learn and risk-tolerant. Due to the crowd-sourcing nature of the technology, blockchain holds the most promise for organizations who share a common challenge. Organizations that are willing to cooperate with one another can rally around the potential blockchain offers to create new business models to solve problems they have been unable to solve on their own.

Q: What is the most exciting blockchain initiative Synaptic Health Alliance is working on?

MJ: We are very encouraged by the early results from our pilot focused on maintaining accurate provider directories. Using shared data, Synaptic Health Alliance members have found that we are able to locate and update certain types of inaccurate information faster than we would on our own. One type of that information is active and inactive providers – or those care providers who are actively practicing at a particular location versus those providers who are no longer practicing at a particular location due to a move, retirement, job change or other reason. Using shared data, we found that approximately 67 percent to 88 percent of the time an Alliance member’s active provider record should be changed to inactive when another alliance member indicated it was inactive.

This initial success shows that we are headed in the right direction and gives us the momentum to continue aligning our processes and expanding the pilot. We still have work to do in order to make this a utility for the broader health care industry, but we are getting closer. The most exciting aspect is that blockchain has introduced a way for competitors to collaborate for the collective good of the system in a way that has been unprecedented so far and is helping us explore new ways of thinking and build stronger relationships that will translate to other benefits down the road.

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