Blockchain and Healthcare

A rudimentary grasp of blockchains is the first step to understanding the impact of this technology in the healthcare industry. As stated by Senior Advisor at Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Nadia Diakun-Thibault, a blockchain serves as “a peer-to-peer network that enables parties to jointly store and analyze data with complete privacy that could empower precision medicine clinical trials and research.” The potential of such technology is enormous and could in some way affect multiple (if not all) industries. So what exactly is a blockchain?

Blockchain Explained

This technology is not new, as tech years go. Blockchains first came on the scene over ten years ago, but the experimental development of this technology coupled with corporate acceptance of it, makes for a slow turning ship.

Three key elements of blockchains are transactions, blocks, and hashes. The official definition of blockchain is: a distributed database or ledger, which maintains a continuously growing list of records, known as blocks.* Blocks are simply secure groupings of transactions. Each transaction that occurs becomes a permanent record within a block. When a block reaches full capacity of transactions, the block is then marked with a digital fingerprint, called a hash. This marking system is a key player in the security of the blockchain database. A new block is then opened for subsequent transactions and so on, forming a chain of blocks. Data within a blockchain can be accessed by all parties within its network, and can never be altered or erased. This immutability and security are highly appealing for users in the healthcare industry for obvious reasons.

The Practicality of Blockchain in Healthcare

Consider, for instance, the possibilities of a system which collects the medical data of a particular patient. This data is logged securely into a chain, accessible by every healthcare provider for this patient globally — whether a dentist, cardiologist, pharmacist, or chiropractor.So what do the transactions within these blocks look like? It could be the purchase of a medication at a participating pharmacy, a blood test ordered by a physician, etc. Each separate encounter is recorded as a transaction. Depending on the format of the chain, the data limit for the blocks may vary. Within the bitcoin blockchain, each block can house up to one megabyte of data before it must be hashed, and a new block is formed. A typical database is simply a repository of data, e.g., spreadsheets via Microsoft Excel. A blockchain, however, functions on a much different level, and should not be considered a standard database, because of the complexity of encryption provided by the hashing system. In financial terms, a transaction between individuals using cryptocurrency such as bitcoin, can be conducted and recorded without the need for a bank. The reliability of the system algorithm itself removes the potential hazards of lending to an unconfirmed identity. Essentially, the security of the blockchain is the only identity that matters. It remains to be seen how this technology will be absorbed and leveraged by financial institutions to maintain their position in the food chain (or the blockchain… as it were).

Along with security, and immutability, another strong case for this technology in the field of medicine is the elimination of human error. Looking to the future, human interaction could ultimately be removed from many routine data collection scenarios, thereby eliminating the potential for human error in that particular scenario. For example, accurate vital signs can be gathered and transmitted directly from a device worn by the patient into the blockchain, rather than data being gathered by the attending personnel through a wearable device, and input into the data repository of a facility computer.

Permissioned and Permissionless Blockchains

There are two levels of accessibility in the realm of blockchains. As stated above, a primary use of this system is based on the idea of shared data in a secure members-only network. This type of construct is considered a permissioned blockchain. A permissionless blockchain is one that is open to all users. In order to mine bitcoin, for example, a user must be a part of the bitcoin network, but this access is available to all.

Cryptocurrency and Healthcare

The platform Patientory is the best example to date of the marriage between healthcare and cryptocurrency. A fledgling company at first, this startup has now raised 7,2 million dollars through Initial Coin Offering (ICO) to support their venture of placing ownership of health records securely in the hands of the patient, rather than the providers only. The idea is that digital space can actually be purchased and held by individuals, and that the. data housed there is no longer subject to a particular server, but can be recorded and viewed immutably through a blockchain. All told, both blockchain technology and the revolution of cryptocurrency are growing from infancy and becoming viable players for accuracy and security within the healthcare industry.