Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize healthcare with secure data management and improved transparency.
Integrating blockchain in healthcare faces challenges like initial costs, scalability, standardization, and regulatory compliance.
Decentralization and data distribution of blockchains can facilitate secure and synchronized patient records.
Blockchain integration can enhance interoperability among health service providers, enabling accessible and transparent patient care.
While it is more often associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology has also been explored for data storage and protection in a range of different industries. Along with charity and supply chain, the healthcare sector is among the most discussed use cases. But what aspects of blockchain make it suitable for healthcare?
The benefits of using blockchain in healthcare
Some of the features that allow cryptocurrency blockchains to act as a secure record of financial transactions are also applicable to storing medical data. Since most blockchains are designed as distributed systems that record and protect files through the use of cryptography, it is extremely difficult for someone to disrupt or change the data without having the approval of all other participants of the network. Therefore, immutability is one of the features that enable the creation of incorruptible databases for medical records.
Moreover, the peer-to-peer architecture used in blockchains allows all copies of a patient's record to be synchronized with one another as updates are made, even though they are stored on different computers. In fact, each network node holds a copy of the entire blockchain, and they communicate regularly to ensure data is up-to-date and authentic. Thus, decentralization and data distribution are also important aspects.
It’s worth mentioning that blockchains are distributed but not always decentralized (in terms of governance). Decentralization is not a binary thing, so depending on how nodes are distributed and on the overall architecture, distributed systems may present variable degrees of decentralization. In the context of healthcare, blockchains are usually built as a private network, as opposed to the public ones that are typically used as cryptocurrency ledgers. While anyone can join and contribute to the development of a public blockchain, private versions require permission and are managed by a smaller number of nodes.
Potential Advantages of Using Blockchain in Healthcare
The power of blockchain extends beyond finance and into the significant field of healthcare, from securing patient data to ensuring the authenticity of pharmaceuticals. Here are some potential use cases that highlight how blockchain technology can revolutionize healthcare.
1. Increased security
As mentioned, one of the most important use cases of blockchains in the healthcare industry is leveraging the technology to create a secure and unified peer-to-peer (distributed) database. Thanks to blockchains’ immutability, data corruption should no longer be a concern. Blockchain technology can be used to effectively register and track the medical data of thousands of patients.
Unlike traditional databases that rely on a centralized server, the use of a distributed system allows for data exchange with higher levels of security while also cutting down on the administrative costs that the current system imposes. The decentralized nature of blockchains also makes them less vulnerable to technical failures and external attacks that often compromise valuable information. The security provided by blockchain networks can be particularly useful for hospitals, which are often dealing with hacker invasions and ransomware attacks.
Another advantage of blockchain-based medical records is their ability to enhance interoperability among clinics, hospitals, and other health service providers. Technological differences in data storage systems often make it difficult for organizations to share documents.
Blockchains, however, can solve this problem by allowing authorized parties to access a unified database of patient files or even medicine distribution records. So rather than attempting to interface with each others' internal storage, service providers can work together on a single one.
3. Accessibility and transparency
In addition to simplifying the process of record sharing, blockchain systems may also give patients increased levels of accessibility and transparency over their own health information. In some circumstances, requesting the validation of changes made to patients’ documents can ensure the accuracy of the records. If employed properly, this can provide an extra layer of security against human error and intentional falsifications.
4. Reliable supply chain management
Blockchains can provide a reliable method for tracking pharmaceuticals through the entire manufacturing and distribution process, thus cutting down on the widespread problem of drug counterfeiting. In conjunction with IoT devices used to measure factors such as temperature, blockchain technology could also be used to verify proper storage and shipping conditions or to authenticate drug quality.
5. Insurance fraud protection
Blockchain could also be used to combat medical insurance fraud, which is estimated to cost the American healthcare system more than $100 billion each year. Immutable records stored on blockchains and shared with an insurance provider can prevent some of the most common types of fraud, including billing for procedures that never took place and charging for unnecessary services.
6. Clinical trials recruiting
Another use of blockchain in healthcare is to improve the quality and effectiveness of clinical trials. Medical data on blockchains could be used by trial recruiters to identify patients who could benefit from the drugs being tested.
Such a recruitment system could greatly improve clinical trial enrollment, as many patients are never made aware of relevant drug trials and, therefore, are never given an opportunity to participate in them. While trials are conducted, blockchains can be used to ensure the integrity of the data being collected.
Challenges of Integrating Blockchain in Healthcare
Implementing blockchain technology in healthcare is indeed promising, but it comes with some challenges. Let’s delve into some of these key concerns.
Taking the US as an example, healthcare companies that are interested in adopting blockchain technology are required to comply with existing data regulations, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).
HIPAA outlines standards for data storage, sharing, and protection in the healthcare sector. So, in order to be fully compliant, US-based companies would need to deploy customized blockchain record systems with increased privacy features and limited accessibility.
2. Initial costs and speed
On the provider end, blockchain solutions are likely to involve a high initial investment, a fact that certainly prevents wider adoption. In addition, distributed systems tend to be significantly slower than centralized ones in terms of transactions per second.
A big blockchain network with numerous nodes would probably need more time to transmit and synchronize data when compared to centralized systems. This is especially concerning for huge databases that would eventually need to store and track the information of millions of patients. The problem would be even worse for large-sized image files, such as computed tomography or MRI scans.
3. Educational gap
The complexity of blockchain technology creates educational challenges in the healthcare sector. This gap in understanding can lead to underutilization and improper implementation of blockchain solutions.
Continuous training and education are needed to equip healthcare professionals with knowledge about potential use cases, appropriate implementation strategies, and awareness of evolving regulations and cyber threats.
The enormous amount of data produced by the healthcare sector presents a significant scalability challenge for blockchain networks. As the volume of data increases, so does the transaction time and operational cost on some blockchains.
This limitation can delay information retrieval or transaction verification, negatively impacting system efficiency and patient care. Additionally, these concerns may discourage healthcare entities from adopting blockchain, halting innovations and advancements in the sector.
5. Data standardization
Blockchain needs uniform data input to promote efficient communication and interoperability within the network. However, this is particularly challenging in healthcare, given the wide array of data types and formats.
Without a standardized data protocol, the exchange of information could lead to misinterpretation or errors, disrupting the system. Therefore, achieving data standardization without losing important details of health information poses a major hurdle for the use of blockchain in healthcare.
From secure management of patient data to enhancing transparency and safety, blockchain holds great potential for the healthcare industry. However, the educational gap, scalability issues, and existing regulatory frameworks are some of the factors that need addressing. Balancing these complexities with blockchain's numerous benefits will necessitate a meticulous and collaborative approach among all stakeholders in the healthcare sector.