These days, the list of disruptive technologies in healthcare — that is, advancements so potential-packed that they’ll change the field forever — is as long as it is incredible. You don’t need a degree in medicine or technology to understand the effects many of these improvements will soon have. When you read terms like “3-D printing” or “advanced EHR systems,” it’s hard not to imagine all the ways these improvements could make the field easier and more efficient for patients and professionals alike.
Blockchain in healthcare is one of the most hyped advancements of big data. Originally developed as a critical decentralization and security factor for a popular digital currency called Bitcoin, the technology’s transformative potential in healthcare has seen huge interest since HealthcareIT.gov called for papers explaining its possible uses. This generated proposals on insurance billing, data recording, encouraging healthy eating habits, and more.
Even then, however, understanding how blockchain in healthcare can help providers reach these goals (and countless others) is a heady task for the uninitiated. If you’ve seen recent headlines and wondered what the heck this blockchain thing is, here’s a high-level look at the solution and the benefits it could soon offer healthcare systems and their patients.
Decentralization Has EHR Appeal
Blockchain is a critical component of Bitcoin, a well-known, widely used digital currency. A major part of Bitcoin’s appeal is the fact that it’s decentralized, despite being a fully digital product. No single central authority controls the cryptocurrency, but strong security measures are still in place to prevent the digital coins from being duplicated or otherwise abused.
In this sense, you can view blockchain as a sort of uneditable, decentralized ledger. Though no one keeps track of all Bitcoin transactions, there are still measures in place to ensure the validity of a given user’s “wallet.” In a healthcare system where over-specialization is the norm, EHR interoperability is a serious concern. Patients approach multiple systems like shoppers at different grocery stores. Applying the same philosophy to medical records is both innovative and unavoidable: It’s a solution to a problem that has, to this point, proven unsolvable.
Furthermore, blockchain could represent a way for patients to carry their entire healthcare histories in a similar digital ledger. Instead of worrying about carrying data from one system to the next, patients with blockchain-held records could simply give their new providers permission (ostensibly in the form of personal, encrypted keys) to append their existing histories. The new podiatrist they visit, for instance, would add information to the same ledger as their general physician, their physical therapist, and so on.
The same idea holds just as much potential on the other side of the healthcare counter. For locum tenens organizations, for instance, licensing, credentialing, and general verification are a substantial part of the value proposition. In essence, organizations ensure the paperwork is in order so clients don’t have to. For locum professionals and the clients they work for, a blockchain-powered credentialing system would empower greater records portability, which would in turn naturally create greater efficiency, verifiability, and control over a highly technical, time-consuming process.
This basic idea caries numerous high-potential use cases in healthcare settings. An organization needing a specific professional with a rare, highly desirable set of certifications and work experiences would be able to quickly verify the relevant data, for one example. A locum credentialing department would be more quickly able to credential a physician in a new state using blockchain-held data, thus allowing them to work for clients faster, for another example.
Verification, Security, and Personal Health Devices
Also worth noting is the continued need for digital security and trust in viewing, transmitting, and editing healthcare data. Records held in a blockchain can only be appended — as opposed to edited — after the fact, and every action creates a secure, auditable record across the chain’s network. This creates an environment in which security is the norm, and abuse of records in any form becomes far more difficult to carry out.
Without digging too deep into blockchain’s architecture, this ability largely stems from its decentralized nature. A huge network of participating computers authorizes every change made to a given “block” of records, thus eliminating the possibility of tampering and immediately legitimizing all authorized changes to the ledger. When everything on a patient’s record is valid, practices that would normally be considered insecure can be carried out safely.
This carries multiple implications for the current state of healthcare security, with the potential to change identity verification, research practices, and the validity of personal health device data. For example, researchers with the right tools at their disposal could pull from huge pools of anonymous healthcare data in real time. This brings a greater degree of accuracy to direct research, paving the way for ultra-precise medication and treatment regimens.
Data from personal health devices have received a certain reputation in the medical community and its privacy guidelines for a lack of validity and security. With blockchain in healthcare, these data could be instantly vetted and added to a patient’s lifelong chain, giving providers more information as they consider the patient’s overall health history.
Turning back to locum tenens, it’s easy to see how these advantages benefit organizations utilizing temporary talent pools to fill their staffing gaps. With better breadth and depth of recordkeeping, a locum — who may otherwise be at the mercy of what data is available in the patient’s chart — could get a much fuller view of their history without faulty memory or even dishonesty, allowing certain patients to take advantage. This alone has serious potential for visiting physicians, nurse practitioners, and other temporary staff, who may not always be able to get the whole picture behind a patient’s health and behavioral quirks through records alone.
Unmitigated and Untapped Potential
These are just a few uses of blockchain in healthcare. Patients may soon send validated outcome data to their providers through blockchain. Another simpler take on the technology proposes using it as a gatekeeper for traditionally-stored health records.
This isn’t to say there aren’t challenges to overcome. Most notably, blockchain, in its current state, violates HIPAA because of language surrounding complex technical requirements. It would be necessary to change the technology or the legislature for companies to allow blockchain solutions to touch protected records.
Even then, however, blockchain holds a bright future in a field where dozens of technologies promise to break barriers and introduce major, positive changes. Though the specifics are still being worked out, you can expect blockchain to make a major impact on both sides of the healthcare counter. When a technology meets so many needs and addresses so many challenges, it’s only a matter of time until it finally breaks through.