The past 12 months have shown that healthcare is ripe for new innovation and is ready to welcome new technologies to optimise the quality of service provided. One such technology that has the power to take health to the next level is blockchain.
To better understand the role that blockchain can take on in the world of healthcare, it’s key to have an understanding of how distributed ledger technology (DLT) can work and how it could be applied to a broader healthcare system.
DLT paves the way for better peer-to-peer computing, cryptography and secure technology to verify and propagate a chain of transaction records across a consortium, alliance, partnership or coalition. Blockchain is a decentralised technology that’s already a huge influence on the world of cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin.
In North America alone, we can see that blockchain technology in the healthcare market is set to make its presence felt as the decade moves on. While its implementation may be too late to help combat the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic, DLT may play a more hands-on role in helping patients throughout the next health crisis to affect individuals on a national or international scale.
What is Blockchain?
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines blockchain as ‘tamper evident and tamper resistant’ digital ledgers that are implemented in a distributed fashion – and usually without a central authority like a bank, company or government. At its most simple level, blockchain enables a community of users to record transactions in a shared ledger within that community where no transaction can be changed once it’s published.
While there are differences, the terms blockchain and DLT are often used interchangeably – particularly when addressing the business value of the solutions.
Blockchain describes a chain of data or transactions as blocks that are interlinked or chained together by cryptographic signatures – known as a hash. These are stored in ledgers and supported by a network of interconnected processes called nodes. Here, nodes maintain copies of the entire chain and work to make sure they remain synchronized.
While depending on well-known and tested technologies like networking, hashes and encryption, blockchain is wildly different from more traditional programming, networks, databases and web interfaces. This calls for a fresh understanding of design, data sharing and implementation.
The application of blockchain in healthcare is nascent. Nevertheless, early solutions have indicated that there’s potential to reduce healthcare costs, streamline business processes and improve the level of access to information across disparate and diverse stakeholders working towards the same goals.
Opportunities and Hurdles for Blockchain in Healthcare
Some of the biggest barriers to the adoption of blockchain within healthcare revolve around network infrastructures, identify verification and uniform patterns of authorisation to access electronic health information.
Blockchain can be applied in many healthcare areas, but all activity within healthcare is not linked to transactions. Blockchains will be unable to store private information like identifying health data because the information itself can be widely accessible. This level of transparency mandated that providers must consider the privacy issues to ensure protected health information.
Because its data is immutable, blockchains shouldn’t be used indiscriminately in healthcare. Large files, or those that regularly change, maybe kept out – while all identifying data must be kept off the chain.
However, the benefits to blockchain adoption can rapidly update traditional methods of healthcare database management systems, include decentralized management, unchangeable databases, traceable data, data provenance, the availability of data to authorised users while utilizing encryption to keep it away from unauthorised users based on each patient’s private keys.
Revolutionising Health Insurance
Because healthcare is built on many transactions, blockchain can play a significant role in its future. Some of these transactions are purely monetary, like when money changes hands between patients and providers, while others are immaterial transactions like the executing of contracts or sharing electronic and medical records. Another transaction can be found in the simple act of communicating securely via text, mobile apps, over the phone or through patient referrals and live consultation.
Fundamentally, all these interactions between healthcare providers and patients can be built on top of blockchain. This technology can increase the ease of information sharing between patients and insurance companies. This means more intra-company information is secure and can even provide firms with a better way to monitor their workflows.
One example of blockchain in action can be found in the form of Omny – a solution that provides critical data to drug manufacturers about their products’ on-hand inventory and availability at hospitals nationwide. This helps to automatically optimise the supply chain and drug manufacturing schedules.
Blockchain Health Co also works to allow medical research to find patients that can fit specific criteria for their studies. For instance, patients who are a fit for certain studies can be approached and may give their consent to have their data tracked whilst being compensated accordingly.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems clear that the world of healthcare is ripe for accepting technological innovations to help professionals around the world to combat the health crises of the future.
In blockchain, we may have a rapidly developing solution that has the power to revolutionise how organisations handle patient data and what they can learn from the information of patients nationally and even globally.
With more organisations waking up to the importance of investing in healthcare around the world, it’s likely that we’ll see a strong relationship forged between the industry and blockchain over the coming years.