The year was 1990, and the Internet had just emerged as the latest kid on the technology block. A decade of research by contributors from around the world had finally paid off, and the World Wide Web was no longer just a concept, but an innovation that was about to take the planet by storm.
Fast forward nearly 30 years later, and that 1980s brainchild has unequivocally proven itself as the greatest invention of all time. As a result of its takeover of the global communication landscape, the Internet has influenced commerce, technology, and culture in unfathomable ways. And, driven by an ever-increasing amount of online information and advancing networking techniques, its impact on the world continues to grow.
Amid the Internet’s overwhelming success comes another innovation that somehow seems to take us back to the early 90s. Although relatively new, Blockchain — the distributed database technology behind the Bitcoin digital currency — has invalidated all negative expectations, and much like a young Internet, it seems set to change the world dramatically.
Among the numerous sectors that can benefit the most from Blockchain and similar technologies is healthcare. Proponents such as dApp Builder point to Blockchain-based applications or decentralized apps as a means to empower patients to take hold of their data. Some critics argue that it’s all hype, but the core concept of digital decentralization is very appealing to the health sector.
How Decentralized Applications Work
A decentralized app, or Dapp, is a web-based application that employs a decentralized, public and cryptographically empowered database system to facilitate the exchange of information among its users. This means that, unlike in a traditional app, Dapp data isn’t owned or managed by any central body. Instead, all participants maintain an identical copy of all the application’s data, and any change to the data is made through a consensus. When new information is added, it is permanently stored on all computers, regardless of how many they are in the network.
So, while traditional applications are managed and stored by centralized servers, dApps offer peer-to-peer data exchange, based on cryptographically enforced consensus.
Bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency, is widely credited as the pioneer of Dapp technology. Essentially a Dapp itself, Bitcoin runs on the Blockchain, its own decentralized database, which enables financial transactions between parties without the need for an intermediary financial institution.
Today, decentralized applications have gone from storing and managing financial transactions to virtually all forms of information, including personal identity, intellectual property, smart contracts, and of course, healthcare data.
dApps in healthcare
Digital decentralization has opened doors to new possibilities in the health sector. Moving to a decentralized crypto-enforced data system has the potential to revolutionize the healthcare sector in tremendous ways.
1. Data exchange
The real-time information sharing among users is one of the best-selling points of decentralized applications in healthcare. Take prescribed medication as an example. While two patients may exhibit similar symptoms, different practitioners could use different treatments on them to achieve the same result. One prescription may be more effective than the other, but because both practitioners work without interaction, there’s little way for one to learn from the other.
Decentralized apps promise to link hospital data systems across a shared network, so that the exchange of such information can happen in real-time, from one end to the next. If a hospital makes a prescription, the data would be updated automatically for everyone using the Dapp to see it. The same goes for patients visiting hospitals having undergone treatment elsewhere. The medical practitioner would be able to find out exactly what was administered to the patient before, and make an informed, accurate decision.
2. Data security
Although Blockchain and decentralization present their own security and privacy concerns, they offer a much safer paradigm for storing and distributing digital information; one that is a lot more robust against risks like hacker attacks than traditional data systems.
Cybercriminals successfully target hospitals in part because they store most of their data in discrete and isolated central servers, which can easily be compromised. They exploit the existence of a centralized data management system to lock a hospital out of its own server.
In a decentralized world, all information is distributed and shared across many points on the network, which means there’s no single point of failure. Hacker attacks would therefore become a lot more difficult.
3. Public health
Having a decentralized network that connects numerous health practitioners and organizations which can prove very be very beneficial when dealing with epidemic cases. A shared, immutable and trustworthy stream of information about ongoing diagnostics could help to keep everyone on the same page at all times.
Dapps could also facilitate the sharing of research, clinical trials, advanced directives and safety analyses, and therefore enhance collaboration.
4. Hospital administration
Decentralized applications are poised to significantly streamline the communication among staff in health organizations. If all authorised workers in a hospital have direct access to data, they’ll be able to work under much less supervision. Keeping everyone in the loop regarding hospital operations will make administration, along with managing daily processes like patient verification and insurance claims much easier.
5. Managing patient data
Perhaps the biggest potential of decentralized applications in healthcare is that they could empower patients to gather, own and manage their data, rather than having it stored in an EHR (Electronic Health Record) system that is out of their reach. Patients could use personal health devices like fitness trackers and IoT devices to record data and share it with medical practitioners in real time.
Alternatively, instead of storing patient data, Dapps can store access controls — such as who a patient authorizes to see their health data — even when the data itself is stored in an EHR.
Going by the potential contributions above, it is evident that digital decentralization has quite a lot to offer the healthcare sector. It may not be clear when Dapps will fully take hold of the sector, but with support from government bodies like the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), and the Federal Drug Administration, as well companies like IBM Watson Health, the revolution could come sooner rather than later.