Blocks aren't just for children: Blockchain and healthcare

Image credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash.

Image credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash.

Blockchain is about to become a Big Deal, and companies that waffle on this technology may come to regret their indecisiveness.

First, for those of you not familiar with it, blockchain is a technology that allows digital data to be shared, but not copied. 

The process begins when a person or a system requests a transaction. This might be a request for a contract, a record, a payment, or an exchange of assets or information. The transaction request goes to a peer-to-peer (P2P) network of computers, called nodes. This P2P network uses validated algorithms to verify the transaction and the user. Once the transaction has been verified, the data is combined with other transactions to create a “block” of data. This new block is added to the existing blockchain already shared by the P2P network. The block itself is permanent, and cannot be changed. Once the new block is added, the transaction is considered completed.

One way to think of a blockchain system is as a data repository, one in which the data are continuously updated and shared across the P2P network. A blockchain system is decentralized and not controlled by a single entity, like a bank; it is not vulnerable to hacking like a centrally maintained database; and it would be require a vast amount of computing power to take control of the entire P2P network and alter information.

Blockchain forms the underlying digital structure used to purchase and sell cryptocurrency such as bitcoins. But how could it be used in the healthcare industry?

One way to think about this is to start by focusing on financial transactions and cost reduction, with the goal of using blockchain to reduce or eliminate the use of entities that currently manage and mediate those transactions. In the short term, that could mean using blockchain to make payments directly to your vendors and suppliers. But this technology, by its very nature, is disruptive and we can also envision future applications such as the following:

  • Audit the product supply chain, starting with raw material sourcing, and moving through manufacturing, distribution and sale to the final end user.
  • Monitor and manage Internet of Things (IoT) enabled medical devices, including device usage, servicing, warranty claims and data storage.
  • Improve patient record privacy management, through the encryption and distribution of data among various nodes, so that no one node has complete information.
  • Use predictive analyses of patient populations based on patient attributes, diagnoses, prescribed treatments and therapies, procedures, care and outcomes across hospital systems, to predict patient outcomes and adjust treatment protocols in real time.
  • Implement direct payment from patients to manufacturers for each procedure that uses a specific device, or take payments directly from patients for prescribed drugs.

We believe that the potential for the application of blockchain technology is only limited by your imagination.