Guest commentary: Healthcare leaders, get ready for blockchain
Is there an industry that stands to benefit more from blockchain than healthcare? Granted, we're still learning how this disruptive technology could improve our businesses and our lives. But so far, it appears blockchain is likely to have a major impact on many aspects of healthcare, including improving clinical outcomes, reducing the cost of care, sharing clinical data with patients wearing smart devices, processing claims and broadening access to clinical trials.
Blockchain is digital ledger technology developed in 2008 and best-known to date for underpinning Bitcoin, yet its potential goes far beyond the crypto-currency. The technology is a database of transactions—each cell is a time-stamped "block" that connects to the cell before it, creating a chain of blocks that can't be edited or deleted. A blockchain isn't relied on primarily for storing information, but instead for certifying the existence of a specific piece of information—a health record, a vote, a loan agreement or a digital identity, for example.
A study from IBM, found that 16% of surveyed healthcare executives had solid plans to implement a commercial blockchain solution in 2017, while 56% expected to by 2020. Healthcare companies, tech innovators and the rest of the healthcare industry are grappling with what's possible now and what blockchain could solve in the future.
It appears that blockchain could impact our lives on the same scale as the Internet. As summarized by Roberto Tamassia, a computer science professor at Brown University in a podcast last summer, "Blockchain technology has significant potential to revolutionize the way business is conducted online by enabling consensus and trust in a distributed way without having to rely on a trusted third-party entity."
However, as with any disruptive technology, organizations will need hard proof of the benefits of blockchain before deploying it and, equally importantly, reassurances regarding security and privacy. While the technology promises to increase the integrity of and control over healthcare information in general, promises won't be enough. Healthcare deals with the trifecta of sensitive information—financial, personal and medical. The industry will need to be convinced of the technology's merits before discarding decades-old platforms that their business success and reputations have become dependent upon.
Concerns aside, the growing interest suggests that it's worth the time to investigate the benefits of blockchain. Here are a few examples of how it can be leveraged in healthcare:
- Improving clinical outcomes and cost of care by allowing access to one shared database of timely, comprehensive and accurate clinical information.
- Sending and receiving shared data on smart patient wearable and implantable devices to monitor, send alerts and deliver care.
- By automating the process of authenticating identities, data and transactions, blockchain could allow many healthcare events—paying or denying a healthcare claim, for example—to occur without requiring human intervention. This could save healthcare companies from having to pay employees to do mundane tasks, while speeding up transactions for customers.
- For clinical trials, blockchain would be able to provide anonymity by creating a layer of de-identified data that researchers could access without fear of identities being revealed.
- By running certain "smart contracts," or applications that sit on top of a blockchain, patients would be able to authorize or deny a third party access to their personal information, giving them greater control over their own data and, perhaps, greater faith in its integrity.
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