Blockchain is one of the most talked about technologies at the moment and boasts huge potential to transform how we deliver healthcare and revolutionise the healthcare industry as we know it.
By looking at a number of problems we face within today’s healthcare environment, we can identify ways in which blockchain technology could improve our current systems, and begin to envision a totally new approach to healthcare.
What is blockchain?
It’s a word that has been circulating around for a while now but, it seems, without many people having a real understanding of what it is or how it works. In short, blockchain is a store of real-time data that is checked and verified by each participant on the network.
Blockchain is the technology for a new generation of transactional applications that establishes confidence, responsibility and transparency, and in the meantime, simplifies business process. It is an operational system designed to simplify the interaction between the participants of a business process with the potential to reduce costs and complexity.
There are both centralised and decentralised systems, determined by whether or not there is a central governing body. Once data is entered into the blockchain, it cannot be copied, altered or removed, therefore making it a secure and trusted system which can be utilised across a wide range of industries, including healthcare.
Each block within a blockchain shares some common information, but the content of a block relates to unique information surrounding a single transaction. One misconception when it comes to blockchain technology is that people confuse it with the digital currency Bitcoin, the original white paper for which was produced back in 2008; however the blockchain is the technology behind the concept, and one that can be used for far more applications than simply currency.
That being said, it is not necessarily important for the end-user of a blockchain system to fully understand how blockchain works – which is similar to the internet in that sense, where users are confident in using the apps and systems that run on the internet, without needing any knowledge of the technology behind the scenes.
Healthcare on the blockchain
It’s exciting to know that there are already a number of companies with applications who are racing to be ‘the one’ and achieve mass adoption on a global scale – but what problems can they solve? Here’s five to get started:
1. Data security
A key feature of any blockchain technology is that it solves the problem of trust within a complex environment, by ensuring smooth and secure exchanges of data such as healthcare records and patient information between multiple providers, including healthcare professionals, pharmacies and insurance companies.
Patients on the blockchain would be able to control their own health records, and could grant different levels of access for different providers, as well as approve or deny any changes attempted to be made to their data. This creates one version of a patient’s information, which is validated every time an update is made.
2. Clinical trial data
In any clinical trial, data is constantly being collected and recorded. Numerous parties can be involved with each element of the trial and are responsible for recording their own findings. The more people involved, the harder it is to monitor the whole process, and again trust is being put in individuals for their accuracy and honesty.
As trial data is entered into a blockchain, the information is validated across the network, providing authenticity of that entry. As previously mentioned, this means that any data that is added to the blockchain cannot be modified or removed at a later date without evidence of that change being made; it’s impossible.
3. Drug traceability in the supply chain
The battle against counterfeit drugs is real, especially in developing countries where it is stated that between 10% – 30% of drugs are fake1. Despite a result of this being that pharmaceutical companies lose out on a large amount of sales, the most concerning part has to be that these counterfeit drugs tend to have either little or no effect, or may even cause harm to the patient’s health.
There are already working solutions running on the blockchain that aim to eradicate this problem. All new data entries are recorded and verified with a timestamp. A product’s journey is tracked from manufacturer through to the end user, and with this, the drugs authenticity can be monitored or checked at any point. The consumer can double-check the authenticity by scanning the barcode using a mobile app.
In addition to this example, the blockchain is already being used for quality control purposes, analytics, and sensing and monitoring of products; for example, recording temperatures of products during transport.
4. Electronic health records (EHRs)
Despite the majority of patient data now being stored electronically, there is still a desire for a single system that incorporates all elements of the healthcare sector into one.
An article in the Havard Business Review2 has a good explanation of the ideal (and now possible) system:
Imagine that every EHR sent updates about medications, problems, and allergy lists to an open-source, community-wide trusted ledger, so additions and subtractions to the medical record were well understood and auditable across organizations. Instead of just displaying data from a single database, the EHR could display data from every database referenced in the ledger. The end result would be perfectly reconciled community-wide information about you, with guaranteed integrity from the point of data generation to the point of use, without manual human intervention.
This method links to the first point on data security, giving patients complete control of their data, allowing them to choose who can view or edit the information.
5. Payments and claims
Blockchain technology has the potential to save millions in administration fees by replacing intermediaries with cheaper and more efficient processes. Blockchain can also act as the link between healthcare suppliers and insurance companies, massively reducing the cost and time it takes to complete a claim.
It is clear that this technology is not going to see mass-adoption overnight – especially knowing the pace at which our current health systems adapt to new technology – however even a limited implementation of blockchain is enough to open our eyes and realise what could be possible in the future.