The value of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies remains a big question mark. Meanwhile, blockchain, the technology that is the foundation of cryptocurrency, is proving to be a massive disruptor for every industry. While virtually every large bank is exploring the use of blockchain technology and in some cases, cryptocurrency, healthcare is slower to adapt.
First, what is blockchain?
Blockchain technology creates a digital ledger that is decentralized across all users on the chain to allow the sharing, tracking, and verification of data, the running of smart contracts to perform specific functions and the creation of a complete record of all activity. Since the blockchain is decentralized, it makes any data, coins or transaction extremely secure as they are verified by the digital records shared across all users cryptographically.
Benefits of Blockchain for Healthcare
For healthcare, the applications are endless. A blockchain containing electronic health records (EHR) can have each transaction or entry validated against the ledger, offering greater security, a single unified system and the ability for patients to control their own personal health information (PHI).
We’re likely to see blockchain technology affect the healthcare industry in the next few years, with 56% of healthcare IT professionals saying their company expects to apply blockchain technology by 2020. That same group believes the greatest blockchain benefits will be in clinical trial records, regulatory compliance, and medical health records.
Within these main use cases, the biggest pain point solved by blockchain will be patient data security. In 2017, there were 477 healthcare breaches which affected 5.6 million patient records. As EHRs become shared more often and more difficult to protect, blockchain technology will be the best opportunity for healthcare professionals.
Decentralized Ledger for Storage of Personal Health Information
Of those that plan to adopt blockchain healthcare technology early, 70% believe the blockchain will improve the management of health record data.
For years the healthcare industry has needed a Master Patient Index (MPI) that can easily interface with the hundreds of healthcare management solutions. While Health Information Exchanges (HIE) exist, none have been able to achieve what blockchain technology could.
With a decentralized index of all patient data, healthcare providers could easily request secured access to specific patient records and ensure that the record is up-to-date no matter how many other providers are accessing and editing the information.
More importantly, cybercriminals would not be able to breach a single hospital’s system and gain access to thousands of patient records. This would also prevent tampering with PHI as the information is verified by all users who have access to the data. Another great benefit is the added capabilities allowing users to revoke permissions/access to data when needed.
Tracking of Medication and Medical Assets
Blockchain technology has the ability to create unique identifiers for medical devices and assets. This technology can help improve tracking, reduce counterfeiting and automatically ensure compliance.
The need for smart medical asset management is clear as many current systems are difficult to achieve full adoption and can still lead to errors. The use of blockchain technology makes sure every part of the chain from supplier to delivery and providers are all verified and can all easily view the status of any asset.
Smart Contracts for Secure EHR Management
One of the main functions of blockchain technology is the ability to execute smart contracts which can run programs, share data, authenticate agreements, and more. This function can be used to create secure and automated access to patient health data that the patient can manage themselves.
For example, NIST recently released cryptographic standards for how data must be transferred in an incomprehensible format and then deciphered by a recipient with a private key. Smart contracts could easily facilitate this process.
MedRec is one company currently developing healthcare solutions which leverage blockchain and smart contracts. Their solution automatically manages the authentication, confidentiality, accountability, and data sharing functions necessary for handling PHI.
Barriers to Blockchain Adoption in Healthcare
While the benefits of blockchain for healthcare are clear, it will still be years before we see these applications really take hold. Healthcare IT professionals believe the biggest barriers to blockchain adoption are immature technology (56%) and insufficient skills (55%).
Most proposed blockchain technology is still in its infancy and not ready for universal application. There is also a major lack of understanding of blockchain technology and crypto assets by both IT professionals and regulators. HIPAA and other regulations will be slow to adapt to this new technology, further slowing its adoption.
While blockchain and healthcare are slow to integrate, the potential is undeniable and the wheels are already in motion. As the healthcare industry slowly adopts blockchain over the next few years, keeping this technology in mind can help healthcare IT make sure they are prepared for the inevitable future of the industry.