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Giving patients power over data builds trust in health care, says Blockdoc’s Alan Chiu

Using blockchain to handle patients’ data can lay the groundwork for genetic tests, telemedicine and AI.

The healthcare industry’s increasing reliance on big data collected from patients has changed perceptions of privacy and how individuals’ information is handled — especially with Google cooperating with health care giants like Ascension. Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau sits down with Blockdoc’s Head of Business Strategy, Alan Chiu, on the sidelines of Hong Kong FinTech Week to find out how the company uses cryptography to protect personal medical data.

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Blockdoc is a California-based healthcare company that creates databases prioritizing users’ privacy while providing scalable and affordable health services. Its team, led by Stanford University professor Jan Liphardt, uses artificial intelligence and genomic research.

The startup collects users’ submitted data and analyzes results through algorithms without divulging specific information about individual users. The service is intended to serve as a solution to situations where patients’ healthcare depends on centralized information systems.

On November 11, Google announced a partnership with Ascension, the second largest healthcare provider in the U.S., drawing new concerns of how the company intended to collect and process the data of millions of Americans.

The partnership with Ascension, code-named “Project Nightingale” involves using data from patients’ lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, health history, names, and dates of birth according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

“For the short term, we would expect more consumers to start adopting clinical utility based genetic tests, which is going to give them more information about their health. Help them manage their own health in a better way. Long term, this is the foundation for telemedicine, A.I., and healthcare,” said Chiu.

See related article: Forkast.Focus | HKFinTechWeek: Startups Capitalize on Cryptography in Medicine

Angie Lau: Welcome to Forkast.Focus on Hong Kong FinTech Week. I’m Editor-in-Chief of Forkast.News, Angie Lau, and this is our opportunity to really explore from the startup space what’s happening when emerging technology is applied to legacy industries like in this situation, healthcare. It’s my pleasure to sit down and discover Alan Chiu, Head of Business of Blockdoc. This is a San Francisco based, Stanford-led project that’s turned into a business. It’s led by Dr. Jan Liphardt at Stanford University. Co-founder Alan Chiu is head of business and really driving Blockdoc here in Asia. So first of all, welcome. Second of all, what is Blockdoc?

Alan Chiu: Blockdoc is a data privacy platform built on the most advanced cryptography. It’s a startup that came out of the labs of Stanford bioengineering professor Jan Liphardt. And what we are doing is really guaranteeing the storage, delivery and analysis of really sensitive data such as health care data. And it has a transformative effect on the healthcare industry for this reason. Now, what’s wrong with healthcare today? It’s too expensive. The cost curve is unsustainable. If we were to deliver quality health care to all 7 billion people on the planet, we cannot use today’s model. We cannot train doctors fast enough, nurses fast enough, and they cost too much. So what do we do? Telemedicine, A.I.? All of these solutions are great, except they have to convince patients to trust these technology platforms. They will have sensitive data going over the internet, going into A.I. training models, going to telemedicine providers. So what does it take to earn a patient’s trust so that these platforms get adopted? Privacy guaranteed. And that’s what we provide.

Angie Lau: I mean, that is one of the most integral issues that really pertain to medicine today when people get sick. It is actually a really sensitive issue. Do they want to tell their employers? Do they want to tell their communities? I mean, what is the branding that people place on you when they suddenly know your health care details? These are really critical issues. And at the same time, we have things like genetic testing that can vary, like even if you are healthy. Genetic testing can really be transformative in helping you take care of yourself, but also tell you about the things that you need to focus on that might not be so good that you want to share with everybody. So privacy is actually one of the key things here?

Alan Chiu: No, absolutely. You’re spot on, especially when it comes to genetic testing, for example. A lot of the options out there on the market today simply don’t offer the level of privacy guarantees that satisfy the needs of a lot of consumers. Based on our market survey data, the majority of U.S. consumers and many around the world would prefer and pay extra for a private and secure version of genetic tests, because we’re talking about your DNA sequence, which is one highly personalized and two reveals information not just about yourself, but about your family.

Angie Lau: Why should I trust technology? What what is it about technology that ensures that this privacy remains intact?

Alan Chiu: So what we have built is a platform that encrypts data end to end and on top up that gives you control over who you share that data with. You are the only party to host a decryption key to unlock the results. Even we don’t get to see it.

Angie Lau: And so what are the conversations? What what is the medical industry thinking about? Are they receptive to this technology? Are they are you having conversations? What conversations are you having here in Asia?

Alan Chiu: We’re having a lot of conversations with medical practitioners, doctors, clinics, hospitals. And more forward-looking ones are realizing how critical it is to have the trust of the patient in order to engage them with some of these more advanced and personalized medical care. The more personalized medical care is, the most sensitive data will be exchanged between these different parties.

Angie Lau: So how might insurance companies then think about it? What are the businesses and the opportunities that are actually created when you can secure privacy for the individual? Why should the individual embark on this journey of engaging with technology?

Alan Chiu: That’s a great question. When it comes to data privacy and insurance companies, a lot of times consumers immediately think, well, there’s sensitive data that I know about myself that I may not necessarily want to share with insurance companies. But on the other hand, I also realize, well, what if I’m on the good side, right? Might I get a break from the insurance company? May I lower my premiums as a result? So we want to put that power in the hands of the consumer so that they can decide when and with whom and what data do they want to share.

Angie Lau: Ok. But the counter to that is if things are not so good for me and I get dinged or I have to pay a higher premium, and that is really kind of, you know, the situation that a lot of people are experiencing with insurance companies right now. So how do you bridge that tension?

Angie Lau: Explain the technology that powers Blockdoc.

Alan Chiu: The underlying technology is built on secure multi-party computation and encryption.

Angie Lau: What does that mean?

Alan Chiu: Two branches of cryptography that are the forefront of cryptographic research at a very high level, what that means is we’re able to bring together algorithms and data from different parties and perform computation without disclosing underlying data and algorithms to the parties involved. So it secures and protects the privacy of everybody.

Angie Lau: Kind of like how the algorithms meet each other in cyberspace, I guess, and then decide which tranches of data that they will communicate because it’s agreed to from my end as an individual?

Alan Chiu: Think of them as a way to come together and collaboratively create computer results, work together without disclosing exactly what they have. It says, is a form of secret handshake.

Angie Lau: Secret handshakes that actually could save lives.

Alan Chiu: Absolutely.

Angie Lau: I guess at the end of the day, how does this transform the medical industry? How does this transform the care, long term health care of individuals in the future?

Alan Chiu: So for the short term, we would expect more consumers to start adopting clinical utility-based genetic tests, which is going to give them more information about their health. Help them manage their own health in a better way. Long term, this is the foundation for telemedicine, A.I., healthcare. This is going to transform healthcare for the world.

Angie Lau: It’s already beginning. Thank you, Alan.