Multiple industries are getting excited about the possible applications of blockchain technology. The excitement is almost always quickly followed by cautions not to get too optimistic, too quickly.
Take the automotive industry: Blockchain may be quite a good fit for carmakers and insurers. But as Red Hat technology evangelist Gordon Haff told us when we dug into the possibilities, there will be headwinds fueled by those who may be reluctant to buy in, along with considerable government policy and regulatory issues, security and privacy concerns, and the like.
[ Where is blockchain making tangible progress? See our related story: Blockchain in action: 5 interesting examples. ]
The auto industry isn’t alone in those concerns. A longstanding industry with entrenched players? Considerable government policy and regulatory issues? Security and privacy concerns? Try asking a healthcare exec those questions – just make sure you’re not in a hurry to get somewhere else when you do.
Yet, as in the automotive sector, there’s plenty of potential for blockchain in healthcare, and multiple pilots and other projects already underway.
“I believe in huge potential for healthcare moving to a blockchain world,” says Marta Pierkarska, director of ecosystem at Hyperledger. “It is one of the industries that has long not seen much innovation and now has an opportunity to go through a massive update.”
Pierkarska notes that potential doesn't equal a guarantee – and that technologists by themselves can't properly identify the pressing problems, much less solve them, in healthcare.
“It is only [through] a good collaboration with all the participants in the industry – patients, practitioners, suppliers, governments, insurers, and researchers – that we can build systems that will see adoption,” Pierkarska says.
[ Can you explain blockchain to non-techies? Read our related story, How to explain blockchain in plain English. ]
Data problems everywhere
The biggest opportunity for blockchain in healthcare can be summed up in one word: Data. This includes patient data and how it’s recorded, shared, and stored, as well as an individual’s ownership of and access to their health information. It also includes how all forms of healthcare data move through processes and between organizations, which is far from optimal today.
“Two of the most prominent challenges in healthcare today are interoperability and data quality, and blockchain has the potential to address both,” says Jason O’Meara, senior director of architecture at Quest Diagnostics. “In addition to supporting data exchange, blockchain can be used to improve the quality and completeness of data and create a single source of truth for all participants.”
There could be longer-term benefits to that “single source of truth” if blockchain enables improved data flows to become a reality in a secure, private fashion.
Pierkarska notes that some key barriers to information-sharing standards in today’s healthcare industry have little to do with technology limitations.
“In today’s world, healthcare systems are not patient-centric,” she says. “Blockchain offers a potential [path] to changing that, by offering solutions that preserve privacy and allow for more trustworthy exchange of data, making electronic medical records more efficient and disintermediated.”
Pierkarska’s not alone in that perspective.
“As patients are necessarily at the center of the healthcare industry, blockchain-based solutions must first and foremost address identity on the blockchain, and here specifically an individual’s rights to his or her personal data,” says Christian Kameir, managing partner at the venture firm Sustany Capital. “Decentralizing treatment-related data will allow patients to share information across providers and potentially allow for anonymized aggregation – big data – that provides clinical evidence at scale to segment populations, manage health, and drive decisions.”
Blockchain healthcare projects in action
Let’s explore some actual applications and pilot projects that offer tangible indicators of how the healthcare industry and blockchain may fit together long-term, in four areas:
1. Electronic health records (EHR):
The industry-wide move to EHR (which aren’t precisely the same as electronic medical records, or EMR) was one of the biggest healthcare IT stories – or sagas, depending on who you ask – of this century. This is a key area where that “single source of trust” concept isn’t actually a reality, and where the safe exchange of information remains problematic.
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