In some respects, HIPAA has had a design problem from its inception. HIPAA is well known today as the federal law that requires protection of individually identifiable health information (and, though lesser-known, individual access to health information), but privacy and security were practically after-thoughts when HIPAA was enacted back in 1996. HIPAA (the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act) was originally described as an act:

To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to improve portability and continuity of health insurance coverage in the group and individual markets, to combat waste, fraud, and abuse in health insurance and health care delivery, to promote the use of medical savings accounts, to improve access to long-term care services and coverage, to simplify the administration of health insurance, and for other purposes.”

The privacy of individually identifiable health information was one of those “other purposes” only peripherally included in the 1996 act. Privacy protection was to be a follow-up, a “to-do” checklist item for the future. HIPAA directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to recommend privacy standards to specified congressional committees within a year of enactment, and, if Congress did not enact privacy legislation within 3 years of enactment, the Secretary was to proceed with the promulgation of privacy regulations. Security was a bit more urgent, at least in the context of electronic health transactions such as claims, enrollment, eligibility, payment, and coordination of benefits. HIPAA required the Secretary to adopt standards for the security of electronic health information systems within 18 months of enactment.

This historical context casts some light on why our 2017-era electronic health records (EHR) systems often lack interoperability and yet are vulnerable to security breaches. HIPAA may be partially to blame, since it was primarily designed to make health insurance more portable and to encourage health insurers and providers to conduct transactions electronically. Privacy and security were the “oh, yeah, that too” add-ons to be fully addressed once electronic health information transactions were underway and EHR systems needed to support them already up and running. Since 1996, EHRs have developed at a clunky provider-by-provider (or health system-by-health system) and patient encounter-by-patient encounter basis, not only making them less accurate and efficient, but vulnerable to privacy and security lapses. (Think of the vast quantity of patient information breached when a hospital’s EHR or a health plan’s claims data base is hacked.)

This past June, I participated on a California Israel Medical Technology Summit panel discussing privacy and security issues. An audience member asked the panel whether we thought blockchain technology was the answer to HIPAA and other privacy and security-related legal requirements. I didn’t have a good answer, thinking “isn’t that the technology used to build Bitcoin, the payment system used by data hackers everywhere?”

This past July, Ritesh Gandotra, a director of global outsourcing for Xerox, wrote that blockchain technology could overhaul our “crippled” EHR management system. Gandotra writes “Historically, EHRs were never really designed to manage multi-institutional and lifetime medical records; in fact, patients tend to leave media data scattered across various medical institutes … This transition of data often leads to the loss of patient data.” He goes on to explain how blockchain, the “distributed ledger” technology originally associated with Bitcoin, can be used to link discrete patient records (or data “blocks”) contained in disparate EHRs into “an append-only, immutable, timestamped chain of content.”

Using blockchain technology to reconfigure EHRs makes sense. Ironically, the design flaw inherent in HIPAA’s original 1996 design (the promotion of electronic health transactions to foster portability and accountability in the health insurance context while treating privacy and security as an afterthought) can be fixed using the very same technology that built the payment network favored by ransomware hackers.