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October 31, 2016

Blockchain can revolutionize information sharing in healthcare

Blockchain technology is the new hype, promising the most significant changes concerning the exchange of information since the internet. Moving beyond the original area of financial services such as digital currency, it could bring the world of healthcare many advantages – medical research being one primary beneficiary.

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What is blockchain? Basically a peer-to-peer (P2P) cryptographically secure distributed ledger technology used to store transactional information. The main purpose is to make sure that a transaction – such as an exhange of information – can not be tampered with, without the changes becoming visible. In medical research e.g. this could help preventing researchers altering the premise of their research to suit the outcone.

Blockchain technology consists of three main components:

  1. A distributed network
  2. A shared ledger
  3. Digital transactions

With these three components, blockchain tchnology provides a permanent, unalterable record of data that is far more trustworthy and transparent than current systems, writes James Ovenden in an article on The Innovation Enterprise (https://channels.theinnovationenterprise.com/articles/blockchain-in-healthcare). In healthcare, this could prove useful in a number of ways.

1. New way of storing and using individuals’ medical records are stored and used (e.g. in medical research.
‘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 this process, data gets lost, which can leads to errors being made and treatment being delivered slower or less effective 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 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 ( a gene research startup) to their records that is secured and verified in the same way.

2. Transparancy
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.’

3. Obstacles
Of course, there are always obstacles. Several of them  stand in the way of blockchain technology being adopted in healthcare. For one, healthcare providers and EHR-vendors would need to agree to use blockchain. 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, Ovenden believes. Blockchain could greatly promote healthcare information sharing which would in turn save lives.

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