It seems a perennial question for some to continually ask for practical use cases for blockchain technology. For all the hype around this revolutionary technology, it can seem that these use cases still remain relatively scant if you’re standing outside of the industry. That’s not true, of course, but it’s an understandable position to be in. So much of the attention has been cannibalized by price speculation on a range of cryptocurrencies, and that means that a lot of the good work goes unnoticed.
One of the industries that is benefitting greatly from blockchain development is healthcare. Slowly and surely, behind the scenes, a vast array of different solutions are being built, piloted, and being readied for full scale usage. And it couldn’t come at a better time. We’ve seen through the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, that our health system is much more fragile than we realized, and it still runs on the technology of the past in many cases. We haven’t seen a wholesale disruption into the infrastructure like we have with so many other industries. In many cases, it is crying out for reinvention. And blockchain technology stands to play a major role in that.
In the interests of bringing some really powerful use cases to the surface and showing the sheer versatility of this technology, we thought we’d use this article to delve into the current state of blockchain in healthcare to give you a taste of the future that is to come.
And spoiler alert, it’s going to change everything.
Let’s dive in.
Secure Patient Data
One of the most unique features of healthcare when compared to other industries is the level of sensitivity that comes with health records. The intimate medical details associated with patients around the world is of very serious consequence and protecting confidentiality is the highest priority.
In today’s medical systems, this data is housed by central bodies including hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, and the like. We are forced to rely on their discretion and their data security – but at the end of the day, it’s really not as secure as one would like. In fact, in the USA alone, during the period 2009-2020, data breaches resulted in the impermissible disclosure of over 268 million health records. It’s a staggering figure.
The right to privacy and confidentiality is a big deal in this sphere because the stakes could not be higher. It’s one of the most systemic problems faced by the healthcare industry at large and could do with a reboot. We’re also collecting a much wider range of data than we ever have before. The advent of wearable medical devices and the overall focus on quantitative analysis as a society has kickstarted a data revolution. Patients are now much more savvy when it comes to their own data than they once were, and there is still lots of room to grow.
In this data-first world, blockchain technology can play a significant role. The very nature of the technology enables healthcare records to be recorded onto an immutable, incorruptible, and decentralized chain that protects that data better than anything else we have at present. It is the best tool we have to take the sanctity of this health data seriously while still delivering effective service at massive scales.
In an efficient way, patient data is recorded on-chain and can only be accessed by authorised entities – in the situations where it is needed. The identity of the patient can be concealed for all but the most serious of circumstances when it needs to be revealed, and we aren’t relying on an out-of-date hospital database to hold our private information. Instead, the patient is in full control and has the peace of mind to know that it can only be authorized by those professionals who need it. It’s a win all round.
On top of all of this, there are some really exciting developments in the field of zero-knowledge proofs which will allow patients to verify specific information that is on their health record without having to show the actual information itself. This form of identification has a range of use cases in the healthcare but also in the insurance that surrounds it, protecting confidentiality – while still allowing consumers to make use of the same goods and services they always have.
It’s a game changer.
One View of the Patient
Building on the point above, when you have your healthcare records stored in a decentralized way, you can unlock tremendous benefits in terms of building a holistic healthcare record. Instead of having disparate pieces of information spread out across all the various healthcare providers that you have interacted with, the blockchain can serve as the one source of truth that collects all that data securely.
Once all your data is in one place, you have a nuanced and holistic picture of your health outcomes – which should serve to improve your care. Instead of treating everything in silos, healthcare practitioners can all share knowledge to help you receive the personalized help that you need according to your specific needs. The full picture is available to anyone who you consent to share it with, and that can only be good for healthcare outcomes over the long term.
This is a much bigger deal than most of us realize. This is because miscommunication between healthcare providers much more common than we’d like to admit. In fact, its reported that it costs the US healthcare system over a billion dollars every year in malpractice suits, as well as thousands of lives. There are a number of reasons for this, but the truth remains that we need a better way for health information to be shared between specialists.
A blockchain enabled healthcare record is secure, interoperable, and doesn’t rely on congested communication channels between busy healthcare practitioners. It actually puts the power back in the hands of the patient themselves. They give permission for key information to be added to their records, and then they can reveal that record to any practitioner who needs it.
This is one of those advancements that will only bear fruit when it scales to a critical mass, and then we’ll look back on it – wondering why it took us so long to get there. Not to mention the administrative cost savings that we’ll unlock due to all the duplicated work.
Another area where blockchain technology shines in the world of healthcare is in our ability to trace drugs through the development, production, and distribution life cycle. The medicinal drugs that have been at the forefront of modern medicine for some time now are an enormous industry that spans the entire globe. The radically complex and intricate supply chains that produce and distribute them are difficult to fathom for most of us. And the stakes could not be higher.
As consumers, we expect incredibly stringent quality control to ensure that drugs are not tampered with, they are produced in the right way, and that they are legitimate in every way. In a relatively opaque supply chain, it’s not uncommon to have gremlins in the system, malicious actors looking to make a quick buck, or even just simple logistics errors that can cost lives.
Blockchain technology has tremendous potential in helping to sure up this supply chain through an immutable audit trail that can help to verify authenticity and track each individual drug through the entire process. A decentralized ledger acts as the source of truth here and every step along the way, a record is committed to the chain in a way that cannot be tampered with. As the drug moves it collects data about its travels and all of this can be safely verified at the point of prescription.
This is a big deal for the entire pharmaceutical industry and specifically for us as consumers because it gives us much greater comfort about the drugs that we are taking. In addition, the nature of this data collection is that we can assess the entire industry landscape from a birds eye view and assess labour costs, carbon emissions, supply chain fragility, and much more – which can also drive improved inefficiencies across the board.
We’ve already seen this application play out very successfully in other manufacturing supply chains and when you combine it with what’s possible with the internet of things, it becomes even more powerful. It should serve to eliminate a lot of the waste, corruption, and theft that happens in pharmaceuticals and give us all a lot more peace of mind to know that our drugs are being sourced ethically and sustainably.
Here at OriginStamp, we’re very excited about this specific use case because that’s what we do at the end of the day. Our technology helps to create immutable timestamps for specific events which is exactly what this particular development is all about. Once you have this single source of truth, the world really is your oyster.
One of the most exciting healthcare developments to come out of the last decade has been the drastic decrease we’ve seen in the cost of sequencing the human genome. In just 20 years, the price of identifying the code of the human body has come down by orders of magnitude – making it possible, for the very first time, to get a really deep understanding of the genomic code that is at the core of who we are.
Standing here in 2021, we have the ability to sequence your genome and identify a range of really important insights about your heritage, your proclivities for various diseases, your susceptibility to ailments, and much more. This data is the key to opening up the world of personalized medicine where you can be treated based on your unique needs, rather than a generalized approximation of what an average person with that particular diagnosis needs. In addition, it could just unlock the holy grail of preventative medicine that promises to get ahead of things before they become problems, radically shifting the way we think about healthcare.
As you may have surmised by now, this data is an extra special version of the highly sensitive information that we mentioned above and so the blockchain again represents an important part of the puzzle. It is highly capable of storing this genomic data in a secure way that retains its integrity, while giving users the choice as to who they wish to disclose it to. It’s likely to be a crucial component of the future of genetic testing for this reason – providing a foundational infrastructure for what is to come.
The advanced cryptography that protects genetic data like this is the key defence mechanism against indiscriminate sharing of any kind. In fact, the security that is offered here is likely to be a major factor that can reduce hesitation within the greater public when it comes to getting their genome sequenced. The social stigma around this particular activity needs to be broken if we are to unlock the power of preventative medicine. And if you know that your data is going to be completely secure and in your control, it’s a much more straight forward decision to make.
Depending on where you happen to live, it’s likely that the payment and insurance portion of the healthcare system is littered with intermediaries who sit in between you as a patient and the actual provider of the medical service. In most cases, the actual transactions that occur in these scenarios happen somewhat haphazardly thanks to a Frankenstein of a system that has been built to make sure everyone can finance the healthcare that they need.
Whenever this is the case, there is inefficiency that lurks in the system, there is room for potential corruption, and you’re often paying more than you should for the service being rendered. It would be a lot better if you could interact directly with the provider – without having to go through all the middlemen.
Smart contracts can play a role here. The idea of a smart contract is that it’s a programmable contract that can be set up in advance between two parties who don’t necessarily have to trust each other, and it will execute automatically on certain criteria being met – often transferring some form of cryptocurrency as payment.
This eliminates the need for a trusted third party to oversee the transaction, mediate disputes, cover the credit risk, and so on. It enables true peer-to-peer functionality that can allow patients and healthcare providers to transact directly with each other, at scale.
Not only that, but it opens the door for decentralized insurance pools that don’t have to pay out margins to a centralized insurance provider. Groups of individuals can pool their money together to cover larger medical expenses and the disbursement of those funds (analogous to a typical insurance claim) can be mediated by a well-designed smart contract. Decentralized financial innovation like this could be a huge factor in radically redesigning how healthcare transactions are entered into, and greatly reduce the costs associated with doing so.
And anything that can be done to improve efficiencies and lower costs in this realm will translate into better care for patients which, at the end of the day, is the number one priority.
Provisioning for Research and Development
Another potential use case that has come to light in the midst of this current COVID-19 pandemic is the provisioning of economic reward for research and development purposes. Private companies around the world have raced to create vaccines for this novel coronavirus and have delivered exceptional results in an astonishingly short period of time. But as they’ve brought it to market, there have been hotly contested debates about the ethical implications of them being able to patent their inventions which could limit our ability to distribute them to everyone who needs the vaccine.
As a result, regulators have threatened to force the disclosure of these discoveries for the sake of the greater good. But many have criticized this stance because of how it disincentivizes future research and development. Why would a private company go through all that effort and invest billions of dollars into drugs that they can’t protect? It makes for bad business.
You could imagine an infrastructure of smart contracts that sets aside an economic bounty that acts as a financial incentive for research and development, that is only released on specific conditions being met. These could include the open-sourcing of the patent information, an agreed upon retail price that is affordable to end users, a distribution plan that matches with our ethical compass, and so on.
This is quite a radical shift from how the private drug industry works at present, but it provides an interesting combination of incentives that might just change the entire landscape. Some work remains to be done to figure out exactly how to do this most effectively, but there is some excitement in the community that this might be a significant breakthrough for any dilemma that falls prey to the tragedy of the commons.
Hopefully, by walking through these practical applications, you have a sense of where blockchain can play a role in the healthcare industry. There is a tremendous amount of excitement in the space with lots of start-ups tackling each part of the puzzle. We’ve seen some early pilot programs and some promising signs – but as we stand here in 2021, full in-production solutions are still a little down the road.
The healthcare industry is understandably cautious about any disruption to the existing system because of how important their role is in greater society. But it seems inevitable that blockchain technology is going to play an important role in where things go because of its unique capabilities and value proposition. There just isn’t anything else that can deliver the level of security and agility that a decentralized infrastructure can.
Here at OriginStamp, we’re extremely excited about working with the healthcare industry. We help enable businesses of all kinds to use the blockchain to create tamper-proof timestamps for files, data, documents, and more. When you leverage our offering, you can rest assured that you’ll be able to prove the authenticity of any digital asset at any point – giving you a clear audit trail without any of the fuss.
If you are working in healthcare and you want to be on the cutting-edge of these new developments, please do get in touch. We love interacting with businesses who are looking into blockchain technology, and we’d be happy to share what we’ve learned on the journey so far – because we’ve had our finger on the pulse for a long time now.
But either way, it’s certainly well positioned to revolutionize healthcare. And we are pretty convinced that the healthcare system of tomorrow looks very different to how it operates today. Change is on the horizon, and it’s for the good of everyone involved.