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Transforming healthcare with blockchain technology: potential and challenges

August 16 2018

Mainly known as the technology that underlies cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin; distributed ledgers have been predicted to become a game-changer for the whole business landscape. One type of distributed ledgers in particular; blockchain, has the potential to revolutionize the healthcare sector, by changing how we manage and secure data for the benefit of patients as well as healthcare providers and the pharmaceutical industry. We have had a look at the potential of this innovative technology and some of the current barriers to using it in the healthcare sector.  

What is Blockchain technology?

Blockchain technology is merely a data structure that represents a record of a transaction. Each transaction is digitally signed to ensure its authenticity, it is public (only the transaction, not its content), and distributed throughout the entire network of blockchain users. This ‘decentralized consensus’ has tremendous implications on the potential of blockchain technology, as it provides a paradigm shift from ‘trusted’ central institutions (e.g. a bank) to ‘trust-less’ transactions, in which no central entity has a role in mediation. Instead, that role is filled by the entire network. A blockchain ensures that information is immutable once appended and that all parties have a complete log of network activity. Because each stakeholder has the same view of the complete ledger, blockchains could become the basis of trust that underpins information exchange between related and unrelated parties. In a nutshell, blockchain technology gets rid of all the challenges that usually comes with authorization, and provide secured data free from human errors and interference.

Why would this be relevant for the healthcare sector?

Blockchain technology has three major features that make it relevant for healthcare:

  • Immutability, which guarantees the integrity of the data and allows future users to verify that the records have not been modified;
  • Cybersecurity, through the creation of individual user permissions;
  • Interoperability, by acting as a mesh network for transmitting secure, near real-time patient data for healthcare providers, pharmacies, insurance payers and clinical researchers.

How blockchain technology can impact healthcare

In essence, blockchain could help reshape healthcare interoperability by serving as a next-generation middleware that couples health data with decentralized, distributed, and immutable qualities. Blockchain allows the healthcare industry to exchange data in a standard format, automate complex processes and apply AI against large silos of medical data. In a tokenized environment, it might even allow patients to sell their data for rewards. Blockchain could, for example, play a supportive role in a variety of areas: allowing for shared statistics on population health, clinical trials research, drug supply chain integrity, remote auditing, claim adjudication and professional credentialing.

Who would it benefit?

Blockchain technology can potentially impact all key stakeholders in healthcare. Patients can have full control of their health data and be able to donate it or grant access to it for a defined/limited time or purpose to research and registries, in a trusted and anonymous manner. Healthcare providers can use limited resources more efficiently by streamlining clinical trials or eliminating expenses for counterfeit and substandard medicines. The pharmaceutical industry can benefit from standardized approaches that can ensure the integrity of drug development and distribution to the patient.

Challenges in using blockchain technology for healthcare

While showing great promise, blockchains today are limited by the nascent state of the technology and certain design elements inherent to distributed systems. Development in the field is focused on overcoming the following barriers:

  • On- and off-chain data management. With the data stored on the blockchain duplicated at each node, it is currently inefficient and unnecessarily duplicative, to store large amounts of data on the blockchain. Instead, an alternative would be for blockchain technology to connect off-chain data silos, acting as an identity and permission-giving fabric between stakeholders in the network.
  • Scalability. Each time data is added or moved, the transaction needs to be agreed on by the entire network (consensus). Consensus requires a significant computation capacity and time. For that reason, the current “transactions per second” (tps) volumes are too low to meet the speed and volume requirements of the health industry. With the maturation of technology, this barrier is expected to be overcome. In fact, several distributed ledger technologies (most notably, IOTA) adopted different consensus mechanisms and architectures (e.g. the so-called “tangle”).
  • Technology standards. At the moment, several competing protocols exist (e.g. bitcoin, Ethereum, Hyperledger, IOTA), each with other proprietary middleware and application development suites. The healthcare industry will first need to experiment with different protocols, but eventually vertical development and scalability will only be achieved once a standard has been established. The recently launched call “Blockchain enabled healthcare” aims to solve this barrier.

Do you want to transform healthcare?

Are you working on the next innovative project that can transform healthcare? At ttopstart we are  currently working with partners on a project in the recently launched Horizon 2020 call “Blockchain enabled healthcare”, if you are interested in hearing more about how we can support your innovative project, please contact one of our life science consultants or fill out the form below.

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