The demand to constantly improve existing methods of doing things has always been an underlying characteristic in the business world, but even aspects of the public sector are known to embrace change and innovation at times. Healthcare is one such field where industry experts are always on the lookout for ways to get more done with fewer resources. As many first-world countries with socialized medical care face a shortage of doctors and ever-decreasing funding, new solutions to improve the quality of patient care are constantly being looked for.
But whether a nations healthcare system operates on a more free-market basis or a socialized system, delivering high-quality care to their patients is an utmost concern in the field of medicine. It’s this commitment that has led some evangelists to prescribe blockchain technology as a potential solution to the health industries ails. Soon after the first cryptocurrencies were created, blockchain technology was recognized as having a larger value than just facilitating transactions. Whether this takes the shape of advanced analytics to securely distributing sensitive information, 2018 is seeing an explosion in blockchain-based technology offerings for a variety of industries – with the healthcare/biotech/pharma ecosystem being one of them.
How Blockchain and Healthcare Work Together – A Primer
Based on an open source software, blockchain technology has a number of advantages for the healthcare system, especially in regards to it’s IT and data aspects. The architecture behind this technology let’s health-providers access data seamlessly between different systems without relying on a centralized database, while other advantages include scalability according to demand, data encryption, disaster recovery, and built-in fault tolerance.
Altogether, this means that information flow within the healthcare industry will be secure, transparent (when needed), and easier to access. Patients, healthcare providers, and medical researchers in the field can choose from a number of application choices and chose options that suit what they are looking for. Everyone can access the same shared data source on a timely basis without waiting needlessly, which can be gathered from mobile devices, patient wearables, documents, EMR’s, etc.
Managing Medical Data
Medical data management is perhaps the greatest advantage decentralized technologies bring to the table. By upgrading existing health IT systems with this technology, existing problems such as reliability, privacy, security, and data interoperability end up being a thing of the past. Healthcare professionals, instead of being stuck waiting for medical results to be transferred from one institution to another, are able to almost instantly make crucial diagnosis’s and issue appropriate treatments.
Every person related to a patient’s care can have their own copy of the patient’s healthcare dataset. If one professional, such as the family doctor, wishes to make a change to the data, they will have to go through a series of cryptographic criteria to make the alteration. Once edits are made, these details can be turned into a “block”, approved, and locked in place on the blockchain – guaranteeing that these details won’t get lost/misplaced. Other members of the patient’s healthcare-network will also have the approve these changes before they are finalized.
At the same time, patients can control who does and does not have permission to access and change details on their blockchain. Instead of their personal details being outside of their control, blockchain technology means that patients can control their own medical details, giving access to whomever they should wish.
Not only does this make it easier for healthcare data to be managed, but it would save on financial costs and expenses. Instead of central databases managed by state, provincial, or even federal institutions, these expenses can be almost entirely mitigated if end-users own their own mini-databases and can be spent on other aspects of the healthcare industry.
Blockchain technology can drastically improve the speed at which data is collected, analyzed, and responded to in hospitals. There has already been fast progress in the development of newer and more efficient recording systems such as wearable devices and other examination systems. These devices, when coupled with oncoming technologies such as artificial intelligence, cryptography, and even the fast-coming Internet-of-Things (IoT), can solve some of the inefficiencies hospitals are experiencing on a frequent basis.
Managing data seems to be the low-hanging fruit in terms of blockchains potential for the industry, being the most visible application of the technology at the moment. However, data management is only scratching the surface of what’s possible.
Securing Vast Quantities of Data
Alluded to before, by restructuring how patients have access to and own their own healthcare records completely changes how we use centralized databases. This kind of model not only reduces redundant access to medical details but also ensures that these details remain tightly secured.
The upcoming IoT, and by extension, internet of Medical things (IoMT) brings about a series of security concerns, with each potential device and connection being a security vulnerability that can be exploited – especially since a network is only as secure as it’s weakest link. Blockchain technology ensures that the medical industry can enjoy the full scope of the IoMT while keeping everything secure.
As is already known about blockchain technology, once a detail is transcribed onto a block, it’s virtually impossible to change this data – a facet that is very good from the patient’s point of view.
As the ever-increasing quantity of devices become interconnected with each other, keeping our data secured will be an ever-mounting problem with the vastly increased quantities of data that’s going to be generated.
Billing and Claims Management
Medical professionals have entire systems dedicated to filing and processing medical claims related to patient treatments, medications, and diagnoses. Some institutions have even fallen victim to data breaches, leading to cases of medical insurance fraud.
At the same time, one of the largest costs to healthcare (especially in the United States but in other countries as well) is tracking the flow of the billions in healthcare expenditures. Figuring out which patient received which service from which provider and under whose authorization is a complex process, with both healthcare providers as well as insurance companies losing billions in finances and time sorting out these details.
Blockchain technology, thanks to its independent architecture, could act as the foundation for a simplified tracking system that is updated almost instantaneously from when a treatment is received. Such a system would have fewer errors, reduced delays, and simplify the entire billing and claims management system that doctors in countries with socialized medical systems deal with.
Blockchain technology when used by patients in the industry can change how collaboration between researchers and participants work. For one, researchers can directly solicit patients if they are interested in participating in any studies or research projects. In return, participants can be given platform-specific tokens that can hypothetically be used for other things, such as reduced cost for uncovered prescriptions, etc. Not only does this arrangement help create a larger pool of test samples to draw from, but the fact that all relevant data on the blockchain is immediately available and time stamped gives researchers a level of historicity and reliability throughout the clinical process previously unimagined.
Medical professionals working on the cutting edge of their respective fields often require cross-organizational collaboration between other teams, organizations, and federal departments. Often times, however, organizations are slow to share their data, partially out of fear it might get leaked but also because of the bureaucratic red tape this invariably produces. Blockchain technology can help streamline the access to broad swaths of research data, as information can be securely shared (either transferred between parties via smart contracts) or stored in via a central blockchain which every participant has access to. Considering how much time is otherwise wasted on these delays, decentralized technology can vastly improve the rate of new developments and cures.
Like in so many other industries, there are still many barriers that need to be overcome before blockchain will be acknowledged as a mainstream technology in the medical world. Concerns over how trustworthy these technologies are both in terms of security as well as in their ability to function on a larger scale are legitimate concerns that more conservative experts worry about.
At the same time, in the United States alone, medical errors are estimated to be the third leading cause of death in the nation. Correctly handling information in a time-sensitive manner remains crucial, and new innovations in these areas can literally save lives, let alone save money. With so many healthcare systems burgeoning at the seams from a shortage of funding, a lack of doctors, or any other reason, the many efficiencies blockchain bring to the table can’t be ignored for long.
Also published on Medium.