What is Blockchain Technology in Healthcare: Uses, Benefits, Risks & the Future

Blockchain technology is changing the way information is stored, shared and viewed. What is Blockchain in healthcare? As described in a Deloitte report, it is a, "shared, immutable record of peer-to-peer transactions built from linked transaction blocks and stored in a digital ledger. Blockchain relies on established cryptographic techniques to allow each participant in a network to interact (e.g. store, exchange, and view information), without preexisting trust between the parties. In a blockchain system, there is no central authority; instead, transaction records are stored and distributed across all network participants."

Blockchain in Healthcare

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Through Forbes, the Wall Street Journal claims that the U.S. is poised to spend 20% of its GDP on healthcare in the near future. Blockchain technology will almost certainly play an important role in the long-term transformation of U.S. healthcare. With that being said, investment into this technology should be on the radar for healthcare organizations of all sizes. It is secure, and allows for the ultimate control of personal health information (PHI) by organizations and patients alike. As stated by John Halamkam, the Chief Information Officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, "Blockchain is not meant for storage of large data sets. Blockchain is not an analytics platform. Blockchain has very slow transactional performance. However, as a tamperproof public ledger, blockchain is ideal for proof of work. Blockchain is highly resilient."

Are you prepared to consider medical blockchain technology at your healthcare organization? Continue reading to learn about the benefits, risks and the future of this technology. 

Blockchain Use Cases in Healthcare

How can providers and patients use blockchain? Let us run through a few use case examples. 

  • Supply chain - Blockchain can create peace of mind for consumers through the authentication of medicines. Blockchain systems can track the process medication takes from manufacture through each stage onwards. This can be beneficial considering the prevalence of counterfeit medicine in several markets and countries.
  • Centralized PHI - Solves the issue of incomplete patient data caused by, among other things, visits to different healthcare providers. Blockchain technology links PHI to existing EMR software and provides an overall view of a patient's records. Every time a patient consents to share a medical record, it is recorded as a transaction on the blockchain. This technology also enables patients to view every update that occurs to their medical records. It can be used as a consent system and track instances of data-sharing. Patients may opt to share PHI with third-party providers while setting time limits on the availability of said data. 
  • Remote monitoring - When it comes to PHI, the security of data is a top priority. Failing to protect PHI can result in fines and even jail time, as specified by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). A step to ensuring that PHI remains secure is only allowing authorized individuals to access this data. How can blockchain help with this? Cryptography safeguards data by only allowing permitted individuals to access PHI stored on the blockchain. If the source data changes, a different hash function will be created. A user (provider or a patient) will need to have unique cryptographic keys to unscramble the hash function into the source data. 

What are the Benefits of Blockchain Technology in Healthcare?

When it comes to the benefits of blockchain technology in healthcare, there are a few standouts. The benefits are game-changers for healthcare organizations that are looking to manage data more securely. Let us run through some of the top benefits. 

  • Master Dataset: When working with PHI, it is not uncommon for data to be duplicated or mismatched. Sometimes, data is missing altogether. This can happen because data was taken at a different healthcare provider, or it did not successfully transfer over to an existing system. With blockchain technology this is rarely a concern. That is because entire data sets are hashed to a ledger. Blockchain standardizes data collection and storage. Therefore, a user would look for a particular address, and there may be several, but all will return to a single patient identification.
  • Identity verification: When it comes to gaining access to a blockchain system, the ability to set many parameters is seen as a benefit. Managing and verifying identities onto a blockchain system can come in many forms. Users can input simple information like an email or phone number to go along with a password. For the ultimate security, organizations or clients can opt for their login to be driven by biometrics. This can include things that are highly-unique to an individual, such as a fingerprint scan or facial recognition.
  • Security: When it comes to PHI, keeping data secure is arguably the top priority. A blockchain is verified through a consensus system, stored across many nodes. This makes DDoS cyberattacks and interference with records, like PHI, more difficult. Blockchain systems are also great at tracing transactions, reducing fraud and protecting organizations against liability.

Blockchain technology and healthcare are a good match in terms of providing the healthcare industry and its patients a host of benefits. Although the three mentioned above are among the most significant, they are not the only benefits. Blockchain systems can also prove to be more cost efficient than other alternatives, long-lasting, since no one person or company owns it, and the automation of contracts, saving time by eliminating manual oversight. 

What About the Risks? 

Blockchain works wonders for consolidating data and keeping it secure, but it also comes with a few drawbacks. It will be up to your organization to decide whether these risks are ones that can be taken on. 

  • It is new: Blockchain in healthcare today is still new and many organizations are not willing to build it up and test it out. Its capabilities are known, but more information is always coming to the surface. Support for the technology is also sparse in comparison to other available products.
  • It can be expensive: For small and medium-sized businesses, setting up a blockchain system can be costly. As was mentioned earlier, when the system is up and running, cost savings can be had, however start-up costs can make getting off the ground difficult or impossible. Unless businesses have the in-house expertise to build out such a system, they will be forced to get external help, significantly driving up cost.
  • Interoperability: For blockchain to be effective, healthcare organizations that work with each other or regularly share information with each other should all be using the same system. This way, all data flows to the same place without it being necessary to re-enter it. Having to re-enter data creates the risk of missing information in the long run. 

In a work titled, Future of blockchain in healthcare, the 3 S's are noted as other potential limitations, expressed through the following graphic.

Research Gate Future of Blockcain in Healthcare

Image courtesy of ResearchGate

What does the Future of Blockchain in Healthcare Look Like? 

Blockchain is a digital database that stores transactions to ensure information cannot be changed. When a 'block' receives data, it attaches itself to the back of a chain and gets its own timestamp. This process forms a blockchain in chronological order. Blockchains allow for the secure sharing of PHI while standardizing its format. Unlike other forms of storage, blockchain has effects on many participants along the healthcare journey, including providers, patients, pharma, researchers, and regulators. 

With data security being top of mind, the future of blockchain in healthcare seems to be trending in the right direction. The privacy and security offered by these systems means that patients have more control over their PHI than ever before. PHI is not transferable between professionals without the patient's permission. Looking to cut costs? A Bisresearch survey says that blockchain adoption in the healthcare sector could save up to $100 billion per year by 2025 (industry-wide). The removal of third-party clients, counterfeit prescription drugs, and forms of dangerous malware is also bound to provide benefits in many ways to all parties involved. Although the uptake of blockchain in healthcare has been slow and hesitant, some signs show that a change of mindset (and system) is on the horizon.