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NSF Funds Blockchain Health Care Data System

Network illustration

(Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)

11 Oct. 2019. A new grant finances design of a lower-cost health care data network built with blockchain that promises to preserve patients’ security and privacy. The nine-month project is funded by a $225,000 award from National Science Foundation to SimplyVital Health Inc. in Brighton, Massachusetts.

SimplyVital Health offers IT systems and services for health care providers to manage patient health records, particularly with innovative payment schemes, such as bundled payments and value-based care. Among the two year-old company’s tools is blockchain technology for maintaining audit trails of transactions involving patient data.

Blockchain is a system for capturing data about transactions in a network, but with the data distributed among the various parties to the transactions. Data about a transaction are broken up into blocks, with each block connected in a chain. Each block is also time-stamped and encrypted with an algorithm giving it a unique identifier or fingerprint, also linked mathematically to the previous block in the chain. This linking of uniquely identified and encrypted blocks in the chain ensures the integrity of the data, as well as protects the data from hacking.

SimplyVital Health is also establishing a data network consortium using blockchain called Health Nexus. The network aims to make data easy to transfer between parties, while keeping those data safe and secure. An objective of Health Nexus is to reduce the high overhead needed to establish a stakeholder’s node in a blockchain network, as seen in the enormous electrical power needed to mine Bitcoins. Instead, Health Nexus uses a system that allows current network participants to create subsidiary or child network partners on the chain to share protected data. In this way, one health care provider — a pediatrician, for example — can share a patient’s medical history with another provider, such as an allergist, called in for a consultation.

The National Science Foundation award funds a proposed enhancement in Health Nexus that promises to reduce the cost of operating a blockchain network. SimplyVital plans to supplement Health Nexus with Graphene, an open-source software environment for blockchain, unrelated to the high-performance carbon material used in electronics. Graphene is designed in modules, which allows for faster development of common blockchain functions, such as authentication, and provides libraries of source code, utilities, and plug-ins.

The NSF grant document notes that Graphene is a “block propagation technology that requires a small fraction of network costs compared to existing technology, promising to improve performance of Health Nexus while lowering its costs.” As part of the project, SimplyVital will quantify Graphene’s performance in Health Nexus, in addition to building faster methods for encoding data blocks, managing variations in transaction synchronization, and recovering from failures.

Kat Kuzmeskas, CEO and co-founder of SimplyVital, says in a company statement released through PR Newswire, “This grant is transformative and endorses blockchain as a viable tool to re-engineer health care.”

The award by NSF is made from America’s Seed Fund, which contains the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. America’s Seed Fund provides early-stage grants like SimplyVital Health’s award, and if successful, companies are eligible for subsequent R&D financing of up to $1.25 million.

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