Blockchain technology has truly revolutionized the vision for the future of information and data. At the most fundamental level, blockchain technology enables decentralization of data; that is, it allows for the control of information to move away from a centralized entity (e.g. an individual or organization) to a distributed network. By utilizing a distributed network to control information, society can establish better transparency, trust, and fidelity in that data.
In an early whitepaper released by the University of California Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, the authors explain that “blockchain is essentially a distributed database of records or public ledger of all transactions or digital events that have been executed and shared among participating parties. Each transaction in the public ledger is verified by consensus of a majority of the participants in the system. And, once entered, information can never be erased.” The most popular utilization of blockchain thus far has been the famed cryptocurrency Bitcoin, which is a decentralized version of digital currency.
Proponents of the technology postulate that blockchain will revolutionize the world across all industries, making data and information exchange easier, more trustworthy, and secure. Though some sectors are attempting to become early adopters of this technology, others are cautious in how exactly it can be utilized, and are treading carefully.
In a presentation late last year, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) discussed the potential for blockchain in healthcare. The paper presented multiple potential case examples for its use, ranging from supply chain transparency and securing access to medical records, to streamlining communication with insurance companies, and even better enabling remote patient monitoring capabilities.
Especially with regards to healthcare data, blockchain enthusiasts believe that the technology can provide increased security and fidelity when compared to existing solutions. An article published by the World Economic Forum explains: “Blockchain-based solutions for health documentation offer secure encryption techniques that safeguard the integrity of individuals’ information when communicating with different parties. Through tokenisation, smart contracts and the encryption techniques that are involved in blockchain network transactions, the process of pre-authorisation will be reduced massively, enabling patients to receive the necessary and informed care more efficiently. This is a result of the healthcare provider being able to access the relevant information quickly, when they would have previously been depending on the patient or on files physically mailed or emailed from disparate sources, such as local physicians, labs, etc.”
But others are wary. For one, blockchain is not well understood by the masses, creating skepticism and reluctance by many in applying the technology to something as critical as healthcare infrastructure. Furthermore, use cases for blockchain, though growing, are still limited. The basis for the technology itself is not brand new, however. In fact, as explained by the HHS presentation, the earliest forms of blockchain theory was presented in the 1980s, with iterations of the modern technology more definitively taking shape over the last two decades.
Needless to say, healthcare information and data is long overdue for innovation, especially in a world where cybersecurity threats and data fidelity is constantly at issue. Indeed, blockchain technology is likely here to stay; however, innovators, policy leaders, and technology enthusiasts will have to devise ways to apply this technology to healthcare in a safe, responsible, and patient-centric manner.