How Blockchain is set to bring health care to new heights


Moving electronic medical records to the blockchain will change the way health care is delivered

2, 2018

5 minutes of reading

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While healthcare delivery has seen innovation over the past decade, a particularly important part of the industry has remained largely unchanged: the electronic patient record (EMR) of a patient.

The medical data have so far been very fragmented, with individual organizations and government entities having their inadequate versions of a patient's information. According to a study by Medicare, American patients consult seven different doctors over a year, on more specialties and practices.

Blockchain promises to close the gap in data by providing a tamper-resistant ledger to contain information in a decentralized platform. Originally developed as a means to account for cryptocurrency transactions, it is now used in various sectors. The blockchain is ideal for storing patient records, thanks to data integrity and authentication capabilities.

Efficient exchange of health information (HIE)

One of the main drawbacks of a disconnected EMR system is the effect it has on the interoperability of various stakeholders in the sector. The flow of patient information from one health care provider to another is suppressed and, in many cases, inaccurate. As a result, there are various inefficiencies in the entire process flow of a medical appointment, which often lead to incomplete or defective diagnosis.

Blockchain provides a secure and distributed registry to store the full range of a patient's medical records – health conditions, prescriptions, billing, insurance and more.

This leads to what you would call a "connected health care" system, in which all participants in the ecosystem will have access to a patient's medical history, without having to keep paper documents in a conventional manner. With a mechanism based on consensus built into the system, patients can choose to share their data with stakeholders.

Containing the outbreak of an epidemic

The spread and the onset of contagious diseases are considerably helped by the impossibility of identifying the first cases. The most important factor in the containment of one is the ability to isolate infected patients, failing which the disease spreads rapidly turning into a full-blown epidemic.

For example, there were 11,316 deaths reported by Ebola during the 2014 epidemic in Africa, according to a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Apart from the calamitous loss of human life, the economic impact has been remarkable: the World Bank has estimated that 2.2 billion dollars were lost in 2015 in the GDP of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

During the early stages of an epidemic, there is usually a lack of coordination between medical institutions. The news of a patient diagnosed with a highly contagious disease would take weeks or months to reach clinics in the same place, leading to a viral outbreak of the disease due to lack of isolation.

Blockchain could solve this problem by bridging the gap between medical service providers and bringing early diagnosis to the next level. With a centralized blockchain data repository, organizations like the CDC or FDA could analyze this data in real time, setting triggers to curb the disease epidemic in its infancy.

Better and faster organ matching systems

Organ transplantation and blood donation have seen great innovation in surgical techniques and organ preservation. Despite these advances, organ shortage remains a point of concern: on average, 11,000 people die each year waiting for a life-saving organ transplant, according to Donate Life America.

Today there are various governments and private companies that actively collect and store data from donors and recipients, but the degree of fragmentation here is high, often leading to large waiting lists and, consequently, to the loss of human lives. Companies like Apple are taking steps in the right direction: the Health app packaged with iOS allows users to register as organ donors and this information is shared with the national registry.

Blockchain could provide a common platform to contain more information parameters on donors and recipients. The inter-organizational information exchange would become seamless, greatly improving the time needed to match a donor to a recipient. Furthermore, its incorruptible nature would provide an additional level of security and verification for a process as critical as organ transplantation.

What does the future hold?

Although the technology underlying the blockchain paves the way for future interruptions, we need to pay attention to how early we can expect to see the ubiquitous use of technology. There would be technical challenges encountered in the process of periodically moving petabytes of records on the blockchain. In terms of storage and transfer speed, legacy systems are much more advanced today, partly because of the nascent technology.

An important point of contention that emerges from EMR on the blockchain is the ownership of these data. Ideally, a patient's medical records should be owned by the patient alone, with a consensus-based sharing system. However, governments should enact policies to regulate the transfer and ownership of this information and define the relationship between EMR and the various stakeholders involved, such as the patient, the physician, the clinic, the pharmacy and the insurance company. The HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulates the laws relating to the confidentiality of medical data in the United States and is expected to acquire more importance in the coming years with blockchain raising questions about the ownership of medical data and safety.

However, some nascent applications of technology are starting to take shape. In a survey conducted by IBM on healthcare executives from both the insurance and supplier sides, 16% of respondents plan to launch a commercial blockchain the same year. Technology should become more common in the next few years.

Switching to the blockchain will open the way to quantum leaps in health technology in the future, concepts that would be out of the scope or imagination of this article. For an industry that has remained largely stagnant in recent decades, blockchain promises to be innovation to push it forward.

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