Blockchain has experienced a meteoric rise in the past year, which has largely been due to its connection to bitcoin – a currency that has gone from obscurity to being a topic of national interest. But, blockchain technology holds plenty more potential than just as an enabler of cryptocurrency. The development of the technology is creating opportunities for enterprises across some industries, one of which is healthcare.
The healthcare industry is often perceived as a slow adopter of technology, so it may come as a surprise that it’s one of the industries that have been quick to assess and realise the transformative effect blockchain could have. Although the technology is undoubtedly disruptive, the journey to blockchain-based healthcare systems or applications will not happen overnight, and will instead be an evolutionary process. For this to work, trust and governance within a blockchain network or consortium will be critical.
From securing a high risk and high-cost industry and creating a layered accountability, to creating a trackable log of the drug supply chain, the benefits of blockchain in healthcare are far-reaching. They can include:
Clinical trials: The majority of pharma research related to clinical trials is done and recorded in silos, if it’s even recorded at all. An estimated 40% of clinical trials go unreported, and investigators often fail to share their study results. This makes it difficult for collaboration across an organisation’s internal team and creates crucial safety issues for patients as well as knowledge gaps for healthcare stakeholders and policymakers.
Blockchain-based systems could help drive unprecedented collaboration between participants and researchers around innovation in medical research fields; including delivering precision or personalised medicine.
Interoperability and clinical health data exchange: It’s widely known across the healthcare industry that solving HIE (Health Interoperability Exchange) issues is easier said than done. The fact that data can be structured and unstructured and is often from multiple sources makes it difficult to find a solution.
However, blockchain could enable data exchange systems that are cryptographically secured and irrevocable. This enables seamless access to historic and real-time patient data while eliminating the burden and cost of data reconciliation.
Population health management: With blockchain, organisations can eliminate intermediaries and access patient databases on a large scale, without needing to rely on HIE based systems. The technology has the potential to transform population health management by providing trust where none exists, including continuous access to patient records and directly linking information to clinical and financial outcomes.
Cybersecurity: A recent report from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and data security firm Egress found that human error, rather than external threats, was the main cause of breaches across every sector of the UK economy.
Healthcare organisations suffered 2,447 data breaches and accounted for 43 per cent of all reported incidents between January 2014 and December 2016. Cumulative healthcare breach numbers were almost four times more than the second highest sector, local government.
As data digitisation in the healthcare space moves full speed ahead, cybersecurity challenges will inevitably grow. Blockchain-enabled solutions have the potential to bridge the gaps of device-data interoperability while ensuring security, privacy and reliability around cybersecurity.
Drug supply chain integrity: The European Observatory estimates that counterfeit drugs cost the pharmaceutical industry and Europe more than €10 billion each year and may result in the loss of up to 40,000 direct jobs.
A blockchain-based system – such as the BlockRx project – can create a chain-of-custody log, tracking each step of the supply chain at the individual drug/product level, as well as managing the drug development lifecycle. Add-on functionalities such as private keys and smart contracts add to the seamless supply chain integrity.
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Machine Learning and healthcare IoT: The convergence of big data analytics and access methodologies will accelerate the growing trend of data democratisation and consumer’s access to their personal health information. This will enable all members of a patient’s care team to stay informed, involved and connected with one another. As more sensitive data starts to move rapidly between a larger number of devices, organisations, platforms and machine learning applications, blockchain may be able to offer an easier and more comprehensive strategy for ensuring trust, data integrity and better control over how information is used.
So what’s holding the healthcare industry back?
Blockchain presents numerous opportunities for healthcare but it is not yet fully mature, nor will it be a cure-all solution that can be immediately applied. While there are many promising projects underway, more proof points around the tangible benefits of deploying blockchain technology are needed. The industry as a whole must back the technology and trust in its benefits before we’ll see widespread adoption, and this requires education and experimentation.