5 Ways Blockchain Will Change Health Care

Bitcoin, the digital “crypto” currency, has stirred a lot of hope, hype and fear since its launch in 2008. It is praised by obsessive enthusiasts as the solution to a broken financial system, and yet heavily slandered by critics who find it unsustainable and a loophole for malicious dark web activities. Boom or bust, Bitcoin has offered us a new perspective on how an economy can work without a central bank. The most revolutionary idea behind it though, is not the currency itself, but the underlying technology, called the Blockchain.

“Let’s say I transfer $10 worth of bitcoin to you, Blockchain is like a giant spreadsheet that lets everyone in the system verify that the $10 belongs to you now, with the option of keeping my own identity anonymous.” says Chelsea Barabas, Head of Social Innovation at MIT Media Lab’s Digital Currency Initiative. Her keynote addressed a crowd of healthcare futurists last year at Exponential Medicine.  “This functionality alone has multiple applications in several industries, one example is using it to track pharmaceutical supply chains, and verify that drugs made it to the patient”.

I had the chance to speak to Chelsea after a workshop in which she and FROG – the design consultancy firm- guided Exponential Medicine attendees through brainstorming and creating health care solutions using Blockchain.

“Blockchain is a decentralized public global ledger [database] which is also secure and depersonalized and temper proof.” explained Carlos Elena-Lenz, Principal Technology Strategist at FROG. “This technology can be used as a strong interoperability tool for healthcare data transfer from and between hospitals and other stakeholders”. Because Blockchain provides a unified platform for all users, with user permissions for access, it could be the perfect backbone for an Electronic Medical Record. Patients would own their data, share it only with their doctors and otherwise have it securely encrypted.

It is not news, that EMR systems don’t speak to each other, which really defies the point of their existence, in my humble opinion. Could blockchain possibly disrupt the strong business incentive against sharing data which the EMR companies still have despite Meaningful Use? “Industry forces are very strong, but history shows that when you build an experience that is so horrible you lose your sales and customers eventually. MS Office has been entrenched in companies for so long, but now there is a Google for work fighting strong for enterprise clients.” says Carlos.

“The space is evolving very fast because it is open source, so a lot of companies like Factum, Ripple bags, Etherium and a host of others are improving it and taking it into different directions.

Silicon Valley is often hungry for quick short term change, but it’ll take a while for cryptocurrency to go through its trajectory which is mostly dependent on behavior.” Carlos told me enthusiastically “We’re still at the pilot and exploration phase. There’s a lot of activity from tech to financial services companies exploring that space very hard. Mostly investments and capability building and were likely to see the fruits of this space in the next 2 years.”

Carlos builds diverse teams at FROG to pilot use cases for the technology to be used for interoperability and providing a better user experience for their healthcare clients. “We are very excited about the potential, but with opportunities rise obstacles and other threats. Some of the challenges include a limitation on size of blocks, finding the right consensus algorithm, and adding the application layer.”

Chelsea, on the other hand, spends a lot of time at MIT media lab thinking about user-centric access privileges and has big ideas to re-design of the whole internet. “Instead of a user name and a password for all these websites, we can use blockchain to establish an identity that can be used to verify, possess and control our own data.”

What inspired Chelsea to that grand vision was an early fascination with the idea of gender inequality, specifically when it comes to employment. She then realized that there are companies that create digital profiles of who we are and then send them to recruiters based on the content we have online. “This does not just make someone else make money off your own data, but it is also very inaccurate! You can be unemployed because of information that doesn’t even belong to you!” says Chelsea. “What if you can verify that data, own it, and then give privileges to those companies you want to work for. Enter Blockchain.”

This applies to healthcare in many ways. With the rise of more digital data than ever before, a dire industrial need for encryption, and the rise of new patient centric models Blockchain seems like a perfect fit in many areas such as:

1-Population Health and Clinical Studies: Allowing for proper encryption and patients to keep their identities anonymous, data can be extracted from a larger population as opposed to strictly being from volunteers. This can provide more accurate and larger sample sizes for trials, while maintaining HIPAA integrity.

2- Interoperability: Blockchain can be a unified IT backbone hat aggregates data from multiple sources such as different EMRs and mobile apps, allowing for a more open ecosystem.

3- Patient-Centricity: Since the patient’s identity is protected, blockchain can gather data and give the patient direct personalized recommendations based on their unique condition and status without violating security.

4- Security: As mentioned before Blockchain allows for end-to-end encryption and a way to make data anonymous.

5- Supply Chain Management: Drug delivery or tracking which patients received which services is simple with the ledger format in which blockchain is designed.

As the future of medicine is becoming more about the intersections of technologies, as professionals in the industry we must constantly challenge ourselves to learn more about these technologies. This particular one, Blockchain, which comes from the fin-tech space, can be transformative in healthcare over the next few years.

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