Can Blockchain Help Us Improve Health?

Opportunities that are in play — and overlooked

You probably know about Bitcoin, the virtual currency that is exchanged via a blockchain Or maybe you’ve heard about how blockchain technology helped facilitate transactions on the dark web.

You might assume that hackers, entrepreneurs and other innovative data scientists are playing around with the technology to try to eek new capabilities out of the internet. But you might be surprised to know just how many really big, mainstream companies have devoted significant internal resources to explore how this emerging technology could help us improve health and health care.

Banks and others in the financial sector are betting big on blockchain — setting up units within their organizations and hiring consultants to help them understand how a blockchain may disrupt the institutions within their industry. But it’s not just the financial industry that is exploring this new technology. Health care systems, pharmaceutical companies and entrepreneurs in the health space are getting in on the act too.

Blockchain and healthcare

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the features of blockchain technology — which allows for the tracking and validation of decentralized data transactions — are particularly appealing to the healthcare industry. After all, it has sought for many years to ensure an efficient, secure exchange of health data.Indeed, many large companies are experimenting with blockchain as a way to improve data sharing within the clinical setting. And blockchain specialist Gem recently launched an initiative to create an ecosystem that integrates health data from both inside and outside the doctor’s office, including data from wellness apps, medical records, and insurance claims.

Startups are also making their mark. Ethereum — an open-source blockchain platform — is making it easier for startups to pilot projects that rely on a blockchain. These projects are tackling stubborn health care challenges such as managing provider reimbursement and streamlining the pharmaceutical supply chain.

So that we might have a seat on the front row to learn more from this experimentation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is supporting MIT’s MEDREC project, which uses blockchain technology to manage electronic health records. The technology makes it easier and more seamless for patients to access their medical history across multiple providers and to share their records with others — including researchers.

Blockchain technology is also being explored as a way to potentially help scientists across companies and academic institutions share data so that we can all learn together faster.

At the recent Distributed Health conference, which convenes people who are thinking about how this new technology can help us solve problems in healthcare, I was struck by how bullish the industry appears to be about the promise of the blockchain (though admittedly, not everyone is equally optimistic that this technology is more than a passing fad).

But there is one glaring omission in all the talk about how blockchain technology can improve health — and it was what I was invited to the conference to talk about.

How a blockchain can address social factors that influence health

There’s great excitement and huge investment around what blockchain technology can do to improve the delivery of health care.

But there is much less discussion about how we might use a blockchain to improve the social determinants of health — to address the factors outside the medical system that influence our health, such as jobs, education and the built environment. Or even how to integrate health care services with other social services such as child care, meals on wheels or affordable housing.

Share your ideas!

Pioneers, like Blockchain for Change, are beginning to tackle this challenge — its latest app, for example, helps homeless people connect to financial and government services — but the possibilities are endless.

During my panel and Q&A session at Distributed Health several ideas emerged, including:

  • Could a blockchain provide a solution for the unbanked who want to participate in an online economy?
  • Could blockchain technology help low income renters build up a credit rating?
  • Could blockchain technology help provide insurance to those who aren’t fully employed in the workforce of the future?
  • Could a blockchain help eliminate food waste?
  • Could blockchain technology be used to help children who are faltering in their education?
  • And how do we find out? Who is going to make this technology easy for nonprofits and the social service sector to use and understand? Is that the role for philanthropy?

I’d love to hear your ideas, and any leads to people you know who are thinking about these opportunities. Please share them with me below!