Blockchain technology has truly revolutionized the vision for the future of information and data. At the most basic level, blockchain technology allows data to be decentralized; That is, it allows control over information to be shifted from a centralized entity (e.g., an individual or organization) to a distributed network. By using a distributed network to control information, society can establish greater transparency, trust and fidelity in that data.
In an early whitepaper published by the University of California Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, the authors explain that “Blockchain is essentially a distributed database of records, or a public ledger, of all transactions or digital events performed and by shared with the participating parties. Every transaction in the public ledger is verified by the consensus of a majority of the system’s participants. And once information is entered, it can never be deleted.” The most popular use of blockchain to date has been the famous cryptocurrency Bitcoin, a decentralized version of the digital currency.
Proponents of the technology posit that blockchain will revolutionize the world across industries, making data and information sharing easier, more trusted, and more secure. Although some sectors are trying to become early adopters of this technology, others are wary of exactly how it can be deployed and are proceeding cautiously.
In a presentation late last year, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) discussed the potential of blockchain in healthcare. The paper presented several potential case studies for its use, ranging from providing supply chain visibility and securing access to medical records, to streamlining communications with insurance companies, to even better enabling remote patient monitoring capabilities.
Especially when it comes to health data, blockchain enthusiasts believe that the technology can offer more security and accuracy compared to existing solutions. An article published by the World Economic Forum explains: “Blockchain-based health recordkeeping solutions offer secure encryption techniques that protect the integrity of individuals’ information when communicating with different parties. Through tokenization, smart contracts, and the encryption techniques involved in blockchain network transactions, the process of pre-authorization is massively reduced, allowing patients to receive the necessary and informed care more efficiently. This is because the healthcare provider can quickly access the relevant information when they would have previously relied on the patient or on files that were physically sent via post or email from different sources such as on-site doctors, laboratories, etc .”
But others are cautious. For one thing, blockchain isn’t well understood by the masses, causing many to be skeptical and reluctant to apply the technology to something as critical as healthcare infrastructure. Additionally, although increasing, the use cases for blockchain are still limited. However, the basis for the technology itself is not entirely new. In fact, as explained in the HHS presentation, the earliest forms of blockchain theory were presented in the 1980s, with iterations of modern technology taking definitive shape over the last two decades.
It goes without saying that healthcare information and data is long overdue for innovation, especially in a world where cybersecurity threats and data fidelity are constantly at stake. In fact, blockchain technology is likely to stay here; However, innovators, policymakers, and technology enthusiasts must find ways to apply this technology to healthcare in a safe, responsible, and patient-centric way.