The prestigious Connected Health Cities data sharing project has used blockchain technology to create a new prototype patient consent model.

Connected Health Cities (CHC), the £20 million government initiative to improve data flows across cities in the North of Englan, has developed the prototype using blockchain distributed ledger technology, to enable granular patient consent on data sharing.

Presented on Monday at the Health for Informatics conference in Manchester, the proof of concept allows for patients to set detailed preferences for how and with whom their data may be shared.

John Ainsworth, director of CHC, said that by using this prototype “we can remove the need for mediation from a trusted third party”.

He told the audience in Manchester that the method used distributed ledgers to develop a consent model and embed it inside smart contracts on blockchain.

“This would allow citizens and patients fine control over who can view their data and for what purpose.”

Using a private blockchain, built using the ethereum blockchain platform, individuals can specify who they want to use their data and for reason, such as the NHS, pharmaceutical companies or university researchers.

“It’s not just opt-in or opt-out because that’s too crude”, Ainsworth told Digital Health News, “it’s who’s using the data and for what purpose are they using it”.

Likening it to the Facebook permission settings, he hopes the blockchain shared records consent tool will start to be deployed towards the end of 2017, and could have a citizen portal as a front-end.

CHC, which is part of former chancellor George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, has been running since January 2016 but was formally launched in September last year.

The £20 million is split £4 million each between four geographical regions: Yorkshire and the Humber, Cumbria and the north east, Greater Manchester and the North West coast, plus a central hub.

This patient consent model is supported across all the CHC regions, Ainsworth said.

However, there remain practical challenges with the prototype, Ainsworth admitted, and “what’s the business model that would actually make it work”.

“We’ve only really investigated from a technical point of view, so technically it looks feasible. The question would be blockchain – distributed ledger technologies – requires a lot of infrastructure.”

Google’s artificial intelligence company, DeepMind Health, is also attempting to create a data audit infrastructure using similar technology to blockchain.

When asked on the comparison, Ainsworth said there was a similar approach, but stressed that CHC’s prototype is just looking at managing preferences and consent, rather than the data itself.

The four individual regions are focusing on different clinical pathways, and varying solutions to allow researchers to access health data.

In Bradford, city-wide data sharing agreements have been signed to share de-identified data on childhood obesity and frailty in the elderly.

In the North East, the Great North Care Record, has already signed up 96% of GP practices in the area to turn on information sharing.

CHC is a three-year project and was commissioned by the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA), a health partnership that links leading university medical schools, NHS teaching hospitals and Academic Health Science Networks, and is funded by the Department of Health.