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Beyond Bitcoin: The Benefits of Blockchain in Healthcare Technology

Written By: Kelly Buckman

As we’ve seen time and again, many of the latest trends in Healthcare technology today come from the business sector, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and Big Data, to name just a few. So, it comes as no surprise that one of the newest up and coming advances in Healthcare IT involves a way of structuring data that has its roots in the digital currency market.

Best known for being the public ledger for all transactions in the Bitcoin (cryptocurrency) network, blockchain is a “distributed and a write-once-read only record of digital events in a chronological order that is shared in a peer-to-peer network”. [Bitcoin or cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency that uses cryptography for security, making it difficult to counterfeit. It is not issued by any central authority and is immune to government interference or manipulation.] Because it is a data structure that can be time-stamped and signed using a private key to prevent tampering, it has proven to be effective in ensuring data integrity across distributed networks. *

The term “blockchain” is rooted in the distributed database that blockchain uses. It works by creating a chain of transaction blocks or a “block chain” to store information. In the case of Bitcoin, blockchain is used to move specific amounts of the electronic currency from one account to another. There is no central ownership of the shared blockchain database. Rather, it’s managed by participants in a network who work together, assisted by cryptography, to decide what gets added, while each participant keeps an identical full copy of all transactions. The blockchain network can be public (as with Bitcoin), or private (restricted to certain members). When new information needs to be added, every computer on the network is notified and updates its copy accordingly.  Once information has been added to the network, it’s permanent, stored across thousands of computers, cryptographically locked forever. As you might imagine, there are numerous benefits of implementing blockchain in the healthcare industry, including:

-Facilitating data sharing

-Managing patient digital identity, for example, using blockchain encryption key security with interactive wristbands.

-Enabling personal health records, linking data across healthcare organizations and allowing patients to securely access their longitudinal health care records. In fact, blockchain has the potential to improve patient/provider/payer collaboration through its use of distributed ledgers, which provide superior patient access compared with other forms of patient engagement, such as Personal Health Records (PHRs).

-Tracking prescriptions, stemming the tide of counterfeit drugs on the market. An example of this is the use of the common ledger to track a missing drug shipment, helping to prevent fraud and lower costs. In fact, blockchain could make it possible to trace every drug product back to the raw material used to make it.

-Expediting claims adjudication by allowing claims to be processed in real time, thereby reducing fraudulent medical billing reimbursement across the payer industry.

-Enhancing interoperability by facilitating the collection of massive amounts of patient data to assist with population health initiatives.

-Enhancing security, as the decentralized nature of the blockchain makes it possible to distribute
anonymized, encrypted data that can be verified by credentialed users. Blockchain can maintain indelible hashes of data so that any alterations of the data are detectable, as well as maintain keys for access to data, making illegitimate access more difficult.

Clearly, the healthcare industry has already begun to recognize the vital role that blockchain can play in improving data sharing, storage, integrity, and usage in the delivery of value-based healthcare:

Dutch healthcare conglomerate Philips AG has created a blockchain research and development center.

The Office of the National Coordinator and Food and Drug Administration have begun to consider blockchain’s potential effect on precision medicine, and we could see this technology used to combat counterfeiting and help with mobile health and Electronic Health Records (EHRs). **

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT set up a contest in 2016 to solicit recommendations for the implementation of blockchain technology in healthcare development and research. The ONC also sponsored a national “code-a-thon” ending in March 2017 challenging software developers to provide proofs of concept and blockchain code to help bolster its application in the healthcare field. ***

As promising as blockchain appears to be in improving the future of healthcare, it’s important to understand that the technology has its limitations. Recently, a Hong Kong exchange was a victim of hacking, which cost them more than $72 million worth of Bitcoins, which as I noted, is the leading blockchain-based cryptocurrency. Blockchain also requires massive processing power and specialized hardware and software systems to harness the technology, raising the possibility that it could be cost-prohibitive for some organizations.

Despite these potential roadblocks, the value of blockchain in healthcare technology should not be ignored or underestimated. The next several years will likely be pivotal for the healthcare industry as it uncovers the potential of this emerging technology in the digital age.

Kelly Buckman is a healthcare IT expert and field expert blogger for Barracuda Consulting.
Kelly has almost a decade of experience as a Technical Support Engineer/ Analyst in the field of Healthcare IT, over 20 years in IT Support, and several years of experience in Project Management. She has a B.A. from Mount Holyoke, Masters degree from UMass Amherst, and lists her skills as the ability to analyze and resolve various types of application, server and network issues, and to communicate complex ideas effectively.
She is also the mother of 3 sons, ages 19, 17, and 11, lives in western Massachusetts, and enjoys solving puzzles, reading, and travelling.

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