There are indications that blockchain technology has the potential to transform the healthcare industry by putting the patient at the centre of the ecosystem and increasing the ability of operators to exchange healthcare data, as well as increasing security and privacy of patient data. Although there is no widely accepted model on how the technology can be used, the implementation of blockchain into the healthcare industry provides stakeholders with a space to experiment, invest and test the application of the technology in the healthcare industry.
The implementation of blockchain-based systems has the potential to reduce the costs associated with information exchange in the healthcare industry. In addition, it has the potential to connect fragmented data within the healthcare system that will allow greater analysis of data in order to provide a greater level of care. By creating a widespread national or international blockchain network, recording electronic medical records on the blockchain has the potential to improve efficiencies as well as providing patients with better health outcomes.
What is Blockchain?
At its core, blockchain is a distributed digital ledger that allows for the decentralised recording and storing of transactions online. By decentralising the ledger across a global network of computers that are used to verify transactions, blockchain allows for an immutable record of peer-to-peer transactions to be recorded and stored in unalterable ‘blocks’. Using complex cryptographic algorithms, blockchain allows each participant in the network to interact with the information held on the network, and with each other, with pre-existing trust existing between the parties. As the blockchain has no centralised authority, the entire network is distributed and stored across all network participants. This widespread access to the data ensures that there is complete transparency and that any data stored on the network must be verified before being added to the chain, resulting in trustless collaboration between network participants.
The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology issued a roadmap to illustrate how nationwide interoperability can be implemented. This roadmap considered the fundamental policy and technical components that would need to be implemented in order to create nationwide interoperability, including:
- A universal and secure network infrastructure
- Ensuring that all participants in the network are identified and authenticated
- Consistent representation of authorization to access electronic health information
At present, no technology addresses these requirements due to limitations in areas such as security, privacy and interoperability.
Implementation challenges and considerations
Although blockchain technology has the potential to be the solution to the above challenges, it remains at an early stage of its development and therefore could not be applied to the healthcare sector at present. Before that can happen, there are several technical, organizational and behavioural economics challenges that would have to be addressed.
Shaping the blockchain future
Despite these challenges, the potential is that blockchain technology can reduce the complexity and increase the security associated with health care data. Although it may require government support for the potential of the technology to be fully realised in healthcare, early adoption of the technology, such as establishing a blockchain framework, can assist in supporting research and innovation to create new efficiencies in the application of blockchain to the health care system.