How is blockchain transforming healthcare?

Blockchain technology is providing promising solutions to many of the problems and limitations faced by the healthcare sector, particularly around the use of patients’ medical data.
  • Web3 and its advantages for healthcare
  • Blockchain protects the privacy of patient data
  • Speeding up medical breakthroughs using blockchain
  • Blockchain improves data interoperability across healthcare systems
  • Managing medical supply chains with blockchain technology
  • Blockchain and genomics
  • Empowering communities to improve health

Distributed ledger technology (DLT), commonly known as ‘blockchain’, is proving popular and promising in its applications for various sectors and industries, and healthcare is no exception. According to a 2020 research report by consulting firm TechSci, the global blockchain in healthcare market is set to grow over 70 per cent between 2020 and 2027. Blockchain technology can provide greater transparency, security, and interoperability for healthcare information systems, and reduce the risk of data breaches – which have seen a recent increase in the healthcare industry. There are numerous ways in which blockchain is transforming healthcare. 

Web3 and its advantages for healthcare

Web1 – or the first broad iteration of the internet – comprised mostly static web pages with little to no interactivity. Despite its limitations, Web1 was a breakthrough for the healthcare sector and other industries, enabling internet users to access professional information and resources from anywhere with an internet connection. With Web2 came greater interaction, from user-generated content to information syncing across various IoT devices. Patient data, such as medical records, test results, symptoms, prescriptions, and so on, could be processed by medical devices and shared between healthcare professionals more efficiently. Web2 has provided many benefits for the healthcare industry and for service users, but has also raised questions around data governance – or the who, what, where, when, why, and how of processing, storing, accessing, and sharing data. The importance of privacy and security of health data is becoming increasingly clear, with data breaches exposing sensitive medical information (healthcare data breaches affected over 45 million people in 2021) and some service providers even sharing data to third parties for financial gain. One of the main issues is that, once processed, patient data is ‘owned’ by healthcare providers.

Data is an essential component of healthcare systems, and must be accurate and accessible if healthcare providers are to offer the best medical care possible. Web3 offers decentralised data repositories powered by blockchain and other DLTs. While this may at first sound less secure – data is distributed across a greater number of sources, rather than stored in a centralised repository – it in fact offers greater security than that of more traditional databases. The decentralised nature of blockchain grants patients greater control of and access to their data. The immutable ‘single source of truth’ of blockchain-based systems makes it much more difficult for threat actors to modify or counterfeit data. Blockchain technology works by storing each piece of data in numerous ‘nodes’, which together make up a ‘chain’. Each node should contain the exact same data for the system to work, so any changes to information must be agreed upon unanimously by everybody involved in the chain. Blockchain is becoming increasingly common in healthcare for applications such as storing data and managing medical supply chains, as it is both transparent and private – patients’ identities can be concealed with cryptographic codes. 

Blockchain-based healthcare data systems can also integrate with IoT devices – which can be personal devices like fitness trackers, or medical equipment in healthcare institutions – for data to be processed instantly. Web3 can also interact with AI systems, which can analyse data and identify trends and risks more efficiently than humans can. This means that healthcare providers can provide more accurate diagnoses and offer more suitable, personalised treatments. Collaboration between different medical institutions can also be significantly streamlined with blockchain. Traditionally, data is often scattered around different institutions and systems, and can be difficult, inconvenient, and time-consuming for healthcare providers to access. Of course, time is often of the essence when providing medical care, and administrative difficulties around accessing data can have severe consequences for patient health. There is a financial consequence too – administrative complexity and lack of coordination between healthcare providers cost the US healthcare system an estimated $760 billion to $930 billion a year. The decentralised data repositories of Web3 enable healthcare professionals, from physicians to pharmacists, to access vital data quickly and easily, reducing wasted time and resources and enabling more efficient provision of medical care. 

Blockchain protects the privacy of patient data

With increased awareness of data breaches and expectations in terms of data privacy and security, organisations must look after people’s personal information or face a damaged reputation – or even legal action. In a survey by McKinsey, 87 per cent of respondents reported that they wouldn’t do business with an organisation that has insufficient security practices, and 71 per cent claimed that they would stop doing business with an organisation that shared sensitive information without permission. This is especially true for organisations, whether public or private, in the healthcare sector, as this data is likely to be highly sensitive. Blockchain can, however, protect the privacy of patient data, increasing patients’ level of trust in their healthcare providers and offering peace of mind. US-based software firm BurstIQ has developed a blockchain-based platform called LifeGraph, which “turns patient data into digital assets that have trust and context built-in. Consent and governance of these digital assets are managed through smart consent contracts to ensure the patient is always in control of their data and how it can be used – a.k.a. data dignity.” BurstIQ claims that patients can use this to grant or deny access to their data at will, for example whether or not they want their data to be used by researchers in medical studies. Another blockchain platform for healthcare has been developed by US health insurance firm Anthem, alongside IBM, PNC Bank, Aetna, and Health Care Service Corporation. As Anthem’s senior vice president and chief digital officer Rajeev Ronanki explains: “The biggest application in healthcare is to create a system of trust between parties. Right now, there isn’t an effective way to say who has rights to what information and how to create a trusted system for information sharing that’s secure and private and puts the consumer in the centre of that.” 

Speeding up medical breakthroughs using blockchain

The ability for scientists to access vital live data can be greatly enhanced by blockchain. Israeli medical company Briya uses a blockchain-based data exchange platform that enables easy access to secure data for medical professionals, and uses an algorithm that enforces privacy regulations. The company believes that this secure distribution of healthcare data could drive medical innovation due to the speed and convenience of its data sharing. The ability for scientists to examine real-time data could enable greater insight into the evolution of novel viruses, and breakthroughs in developing new treatments. It is possible that future pandemics could be prevented by scientists monitoring live data via blockchain-based platforms.

Blockchain improves data interoperability across healthcare systems

Inefficiencies in healthcare systems often arise due to the number of different institutions and systems that must exchange data. Increasing data interoperability can lead to more efficient healthcare provision, and blockchain is an effective tool for this. US-based Sentara Healthcare has been working alongside Cigna, IBM, and some academic institutions to test blockchain technology for IAM (identity and access management) applications. Sentara’s CIO Tim Skeen states: “Together, we’re changing the paradigm of healthcare data flows with a secure network empowered by blockchain. To achieve truly frictionless and seamless care, healthcare needs greater transparency and ease of navigation for all parties involved, particularly as we move toward greater adoption of value-based care.” Skeen also sits on the board of directors at Avaneer Health, a firm that uses a distributed public ledger for healthcare data exchanges, claims processing, and more. Another promising platform has been developed by Irish firm BlockNubie, in collaboration with Indian technology company GletCarafe. The blockchain-based Blocknubie platform also uses AI to analyse data and assist in diagnoses. 

“Powered by blockchain technology and artificial intelligence (AI), Blocknubie creates a cost-efficient, accessible, preventative healthcare platform, protected by leading-edge Self-sovereign Identity (SSI) solutions for self-owned medical data evolving globally.”

Fran Rooney, Executive Chairman, Blocknubie

Managing medical supply chains with blockchain technology

Effective supply chains are crucial for the successful provision of healthcare. The supply of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment must be managed carefully. Blockchain-based ledgers can provide full transparency around the lifecycle of medical goods. Extensive, immutable data can, for instance, be recorded on a drug from its manufacture throughout the shipping process, such as the details of its storage conditions and who has handled it. UK-based company FarmaTrust provides blockchain solutions for such pharmaceutical tracking, helping to prevent fake or defective drugs from entering supply chains and enabling consumers to check whether medications are verified. This also offers various other valuable application options, such as ensuring that vaccines are used before they expire. 

Blockchain and Genomics

Genomics – the study of genes – is a science that is developing rapidly. And blockchain technology can be used to store and provide access to vast amounts of genetic data for research. US-based company Nebula Genomics, for instance, uses blockchain to reduce costs and streamline the process of studying genetics. Billions of dollars are currently spent by biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to access genetic data, but Nebula is developing a more cost-effective solution – a blockchain-powered genetic database. The platform incentivises customers to provide researchers with access to their genetic data, although control over this data is ultimately granted to the customers themselves. In turn, the buyers of this data have greater and less costly access to huge amounts of data without the need for middlemen and complex administration.

Empowering communities to improve health

The recent pandemic serves as a reminder that the distinctions between individual health and public health are less rigid than many believe. Blockchain technology can not only improve healthcare provision for patients, but also transform the overall health of communities. A promising example of this is in Estonia, which has implemented a secure blockchain that stores the medical data of its entire population. This enables the real-time tracking of viruses and allows emergency room physicians to instantly access accurate patient data. The long-term effects of this system on public health remain to be seen, but the system is showing great promise. A national registry of surgeons and procedures has also been proposed, with patients able to access their own data using private decryption keys. As the use of blockchain technology increases in healthcare all over the world, the limitations of traditional, centralised databases are increasingly revealed. And while centralised control places responsibility over data in a few hands, decentralised solutions can empower entire communities to look after their data and play a more active role in public health. This benefits patients, providers, researchers, and the medical community as a whole.

We’re in the midst of a technological revolution and the trends, technologies, and innovations to look out for in 2022 are all game-changers. They bring comp…

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