The implications of blockchain are becoming increasingly clear as it is adopted across an ever growing number of different industries, no longer restricted to financial services but more or less to any field that sees information change hands. They hype around its potential is tremendous, with many calling it the most important technological advance since the internet.
Such a revolutionary technology should be appropriated for positive social good as soon as possible, and one area that is already seeing significant amounts of research here is healthcare.
Blockchain is a peer-to-peer (P2P) cryptographically secure distributed ledger technology used to store transactional information. It consists of three main components: a distributed network, a shared ledger, and digital transactions. Its promise is that it provides a permanent, unalterable record of our data that is far more trustworthy and transparent than current systems. In healthcare, this could prove useful in a number of ways.
Firstly, blockchain has the potential to revolutionize how individuals’ medical records are stored. Anybody who has ever worked in medical records will know that they are often a confusing mess of part digitized, part hand written scraps. Furthermore, the average American visits 16 different doctors over the course of their lives, which means that their records are often spread across different facilities and providers in incompatible databases, with data bouncing from one silo to the next. In the process of this happening, data gets lost, which leads to errors being made and treatment being delivered slower than it otherwise would be. The Premier Healthcare Alliance has estimated that this lack of interoperability leads to 150,000 lives being lost and costs $18.6 billion per year.
By storing medical records on a blockchain, it is possible to create a longitudinal health record covering every incident and update from childhood to old age. This is ideal for medical research, facilitating the kind of longitudinal studies that can really help best understand illnesses. It also means that control is transferred back to where it should be - the patient. Whenever a medical record is created on the blockchain, so too is a digital signature alongside it that verifies authenticity of any changes made. The patient is notified that health data was added to their blockchain and they can add their own health data from mobile applications and wearable sensors like Fitbit and 23andMe to their records that is secured and verified in the same way.
Another important consequence of blockchain is in how patients pay for treatment. The lack of transparency around costs is one of the more common criticisms levelled at the American healthcare system, and Bruce Broussard, CEO of Humana, notes that with blockchain ‘there is no more back-and-forth haggling with the health plan about what was paid, why it was paid or whether it should have been paid. With transparency and automation, greater efficiencies will lead to lower administration costs, faster claims and less money wasted.’
There are still several obstacles standing in blockchain’s way. Healthcare providers and EHR vendors would need to agree to use blockchain, and because it is such a nascent technology there is still a lack of clarity around how it is to be regulated, particularly in an area with such complex data security issues as healthcare. The speed at which blockchain has grown is astonishing though, and its potential is limitless. Blockchain could greatly promote healthcare information sharing which would in turn save lives.