Could NFTs change personal health information management?

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A new commentary on whether nonfungible tokens or NFTs, created using blockchain technology, explored whether this new technology could be used to manage electronic health records.

A team of researchers in ethics, law, and informatics led by bioethicists at Baylor College of Medicine published the commentary in the journal, Science. They proposed that the tool could help patients gain more control over their personal health information (PHI). They said NFT digital contracts could provide an opportunity for patients to specify who can access their personal health information and to track how it is shared.

According the abstract, PHI will become centrally important as big data and machine learning move to the forefront of healthcare and translational research. The current health information exchange (HIE) market typically excludes patients, researchers said, and is dominated by commercial entities, ultimately creating incentives for sharing data and undermining trust. Patients typically have limited agency in deciding which of their data is shared, with whom, and under what conditions. In the paper, researchers pointed to new forms of digital ownership that could inspire a digital marketplace for patient-controlled health data and argue in this commentary that NFTs or NFT-like frameworks could provide a more democratized, transparent, and efficient system for HIE.

NFTs are still vulnerable to security flaws, according to researchers, as well as privacy issues, and disputes over intellectual property rights. In addition, they realized the complexity of NFTs may prevent the average citizen from capitalizing on their potential. It is important to consider potential benefits and challenges as this technology emerges as a possibility in changing how health data is accessed and managed.

“Federal regulations already give patients the right to connect an app of their choice to their doctor’s electronic health record and download their data in a computable format,” said Kenneth Mandl, MD, MPH, co-author of the paper, and director of the Computational Health Informatics Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Donald A.B. Lindberg Professor of Pediatrics and Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School. “It’s intriguing to contemplate whether NFTs or NFT-like technology could enable intentional sharing of those data under smart contracts in the future.”

NFTs first became well known in the art world as a platform to buy and sell digital art backed by a digital contract.