Blockchain Technology: A Foundation for the Future of Healthcare?

Joao Bocas
DECEMBER 04, 2018
blockchain technology,blockchain healthcare,blockchain interoperability
Blockchain technology holds promise for many areas of medicine.

Ten years ago, an anonymous person or group, going by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto, launched the cryptocurrency bitcoin — and along with it, blockchain technology. From being the backbone of bitcoin, blockchain technology has become one of the most groundbreaking technologies of our time, in just a single decade. It answers the questions surrounding digital trust, data privacy and security as it records information in a public space while making sure that information cannot be removed or edited. It is decentralized, transparent and timestamped. But is blockchain technology the future of healthcare?

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In my last post, I argued that blockchain technology is a force that will significantly change healthcare and the way we share and view our health data. Today, I would like to dive a little deeper into the subject, as I believe that as time goes on, blockchain will become far more significant in healthcare than it is today.

As we know, the time for healthcare to be disrupted is here. Focusing on the quality of healthcare means focusing on patient health management. However, with healthcare’s relative immutability, its vast number of rules and regulations, a growing population demanding healthcare services and soaring costs, excellent patient health management seems a distant future.

Still, today, many players in the healthcare ecosystem are not equipped with a system for smooth process management. Critical patient data and information continue to be scattered across different systems and departments. Moreover, taking into consideration the sensitivity of healthcare data, most systems are inadequate for handling information exchange. As I see it, these systems are the base upon which healthcare services are designed and delivered. Ensuring smooth and secure transaction of and access to information and data would aid the improvement of quality and steadily decrease costs.

And I am saying this knowing that 40 percent of healthcare provider data are filled with errors, nearly half of the United States’ clinical trials are unreported and breaches in healthcare organizations cost about $380 per record — and that price tag keeps increasing. These are just a few facts that take time away from managing the patient’s health, while driving up healthcare costs. But issues such as medication fraud, data accessibility, data integrity, tracking and maintaining medical equipment, interoperability and high costs can be solved by the implementation of blockchain technology.

Blockchain technology, at its core, is a distributed ledger that tracks activities and transactions happening throughout the network. Once a piece of information is added to the ledger, altering that information is possible only when all the subsequent blocks are being altered as well, via a private key cryptography, a secret variable key. This makes the information on the blockchain entirely secure. Timestamps on each piece of data, combined with copies of that data in subsequent blocks, are what seal the authenticity of the information and ensure trust and validity. Looking at healthcare, this would mean that the hurdles of multiple level authentication of data can be eliminated. It would mean that multiple bodies within the healthcare ecosystem could stay in sync, share data and view each other’s data, all while keeping that information safe and secure.

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This brings me to my next point. Blockchain technology knows two types: a permissioned blockchain and a permissionless blockchain. The first involves a closed network where only all the participants in the system have access to the network. As such, a permissioned blockchain is useful within enterprises and organizations. A permissionless blockchain, on the other hand, provides access to anybody who creates an address and interacts with the network. This type of blockchain is ideal for population health studies, for example, allowing as many people as willing to participate and enter their data in the system, where the information is transparent, safe and secure.

The existing healthcare system depends on healthcare information exchange as an intermediary to record point-to-point sharing and keep track of what is exchanged. With blockchain, this kind of third party (such as a healthcare information exchange operator) would be unnecessary, which would mean higher levels of trust for a lower cost.

We also see security troubles in the master patient index, where privacy issues arise as multiple patient identifiers have to be synchronized between systems. Through the distributed framework of digital identities with cryptography of private and public patient identifiers, patient data would be far more secure and protected on the blockchain. Other significant opportunities include drug traceability, medical device tracking, verification of protected health information integrity, reduced audit expenses, regulatory compliance and, what I find most important, healthcare data interchange and nationwide interoperability.

Blockchain technology is the means by which we can transfer data between providers, insurers, necessary third parties and patients while meeting data protection regulations. It allows a single standard for patient data exchange, which is not allowed by legacy systems, making it possible to share health data on a large scale. This would enhance information and drive better knowledge and, consequently, better diagnosis and higher-quality care.

The comprehensive data access and sharing vision brought by blockchain technology will disrupt the healthcare sector and form a new base upon which we can build a higher-quality and more efficient healthcare ecosystem. Blockchain technology is young but full of potential — and healthcare executives see it. Already, 56 percent of healthcare executives expect to adopt blockchain technology by 2020. I am sure that number will grow significantly as blockchain matures and more opportunities arise. It is something to look forward to, so let’s all work hard and see how we can help with blockchain acceptation and implementation to create a basis for high-quality, low-cost care.

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