Every day, blockchain technology is being hailed as the savior/disrupter of another industry or facet of our lives. From finance to real estate, the potential for the technology is undeniable and vast. So vast, in fact, it is very hard to know which industry it will revolutionize next and much of what is currently being hyped (like an Ice tea company somehow pivoting to blockchain) is just that, hype.
However, healthcare is one of the few industries which currently shows promising, actual applications of blockchain. One of the ways the tech aims to improve healthcare is in the way patients handle their personal information. Issues surrounding health records is a common one around the world, and their structured digitization could help lead to significant machine learning breakthroughs.
But healthcare isn't like other industries and there is a lot more to consider when implementing new technology. Not only does the data need to be handled discerningly at all times, but the consequences of the smallest error or adjustment could mean the difference between life and death.
In order to explore this further, I had a chat with Raj Sharma, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer at Health Wizz. Health Wizz is a secure mobile platform that provides consumers with the necessary tools for aggregating, organizing and sharing medical health records over the blockchain. As one our speakers at the upcoming Big Data & Analytics in Healthcare Summit, he was one of the best people to discuss the encroachment of blockchain into the healthcare industry.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for the complete digitization of healthcare records and how do you deal with all the various issues surrounding unstructured data?
Most of the healthcare facilities are already digitized, thanks to the incentives provided by the HITECH Act. As a healthcare system, we have overcome step one of the challenge. The next step is to figure out how we make this digitized data interoperable so that it can be shared seamlessly with patients and ensuring that, in turn, patients can share the data with whomever they wish. Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources standards (FHIR) go a long way to ensure that health records are interoperable. Consumers need to be motivated to aggregate and digitize their healthcare records. Providers need to make medical records completely accessible to consumers.
FHIR provides a way to deal with unstructured data in the form of extensions. Mechanisms such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can be implemented to take unstructured data in an extension and convert into FHIR resources.
Do you think healthcare has embraced the data revolution to the extent it could? Do you believe wearables/IoT/AI have reached their full potential or do healthcare providers still have more to do?
We are in the very early stages of healthcare embracing data revolution, especially from wearables and IoT. Today, providers and Clinicians don’t trust Patient Generated Data (PGD) that comes from wearables and IoT. Part of the problem is that when data comes from those sources, it is very difficult to verify its provenance. Blockchain can play a big role in verifying the provenance of the data. Once providers start accepting and trusting Patient Generated Data, ML and AI will have a chance to fully leverage this data.
How do you see blockchain technology taking on a bigger role in the industry?
Blockchain can be instrumental in the healthcare industry. We believe the adoption of the blockchain in healthcare will be organic and will be a ‘consumer-first’ phenomenon. Providers have to deal with a number of HIPAA related privacy and security constraints when it comes to sharing patient data. Hospitals are burdened with declining margins and don’t have an appetite for investing in new technology that doesn’t have a clear ROI. For the first time in history, people have an opportunity to monetize their data - over a blockchain. Blockchain enables consumers to take complete control of their health data. We envision blockchain taking a bigger role at the consumer level in contrast to adoption at the institutional level.
As simply as possible, can you explain how blockchain can be used to help patients aggregate their personal health records?
In the near term, blockchain is unlikely to play a significant role in the actual aggregation of personal health records. It will be up to the consumers to aggregate their personal health records. Where blockchain enters the stage is after the data aggregation has happened and when consumers want to share their personal health records with providers or sell it to researchers in a secure manner. Without actually putting their personal health records on blockchain, consumers will be able to sell or share their personal health records via a smart contract that is executed on a blockchain. Smart contracts not only define the rules and penalties around an agreement in the same way that a traditional contract does, but also automatically enforce those obligations.
This is what blockchain is really useful for – executing a contract between two parties and recording the contract on a ledger that is permanent without involving a ‘trusted’ third party, thus eliminating the middleman and cutting the costs and inefficiencies.
What impact do you think your app and others like it will have on patient confidentiality?
Patient confidentiality must be at the core of any app development in the healthcare realm. Patient data at rest and in motion must be encrypted and must reside with the patient all the times. Software developers must recognize that when confidential patient data is stored on the cloud, it becomes vulnerable to attacks and has the potential to be inaccessible to patients themselves. When exchanging patient data on a public blockchain, it is critical that the data not be put on the blockchain itself and only secure private keys be exchanged on the blockchain between authorized users. For the first time, we have an opportunity to meet all these objectives by using the blockchain in a proper way, completely decentralizing the storing of data right down to the individual level, thus avoiding creation of large treasure trove of data which are so attractive for hackers.
And what will your presentation be about?
The presentation will be about the perfect timing for huge innovation and disruption in digital healthcare. We are observing a confluence of important factors that are triggering this tectonic shift: