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Can Blockchain Technology Save The NHS?

As data breaches continue to plague the NHS, it is natural to wonder whether technology can help to bridge the gap between the need to access patient information and privacy.

In fact, just a few months back in June 2019, it was reported that a data breach by NHS Highland — exposed confidential names and email addresses of 37 people with HIV.

An independent watchdog was set up to investigate the breach after the health authority apologised for revealing the personal details of the 37 recipients to each other. This happened after information about other patients were revealed in an email that was distributed when they were invited to a support group run by Raigmore Hospital’s sexual health service.

Just a month later, it was reported that poor cybersecurity at IT firms used by the NHS was potentially putting patient data at risk.

Unfortunately, the two examples given above are just the latest in a long line of data breaches and privacy violations that have been associated with the NHS.

Data security and privacy are among the biggest challenges faced by the UK healthcare system and they clearly have not been resolved by the various regulations and laws that have been introduced by the government. For example, GDPR came into force on May 25th 2018. This introduced serious penalties for organisations found to be in breach of data privacy regulations. It is worth noting that the above data breaches occurred after that date.

A Breach Of Trust

“Trust is like blood pressure. It’s silent, vital to good health and if abused, it can be deadly” — Frank Sonnerberg.

Trust is the key to our economic and financial system. It is the single most important element that allows us to interact and trade.

When that trust is breached, it makes it more difficult for healthcare providers to do their jobs and it discourages patients from coming forward with information that could potentially save their lives.

When you go to the doctors, your doctor often has to run a series of tests to know what is going on, even if the colleagues from another hospital have already done so. It is often very difficult for a hospital to retrieve your information from another hospital. Furthermore, patients often worry about how their information is being used and they may also underestimate the significance of specific health details when relaying information to the doctor.

This results in a massive loss of time, money and eventually lives. Therefore, the lack of interoperability (information exchange) creates one of the biggest challenges in the healthcare sector today. And even once a healthcare professional is able to figure out where to obtain patient data — it becomes very difficult to get that patient to give consent.

Now if you will, imagine a system, such as a ledger that lists all of a patient’s data, including their medical history. What if that information was public and available for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and scientists, only when a patient gives consent?

Well, there is no need to imagine such a system. It is already here and it is called the blockchain.

Can Blockchain Technology Restore Trust In The NHS?

In order to understand exactly how blockchain technology can restore trust, it is important to understand its key features and how it works.

Blockchain technology is an open-source ledger that underpins digital information and currency such as cryptocurrency. It allows digital information to be distributed on a distributed network of computers called nodes. That transaction of information cannot be modified, deleted or reversed. When information passes through the network, the system creates a unique identifying output called a hash which represents that stored information. The hash can be accessed, without compromising privacy.

In the healthcare setting, it would allow providers to collect information on patients from existing databases. Smart contracts could then be used to ensure that patient information can only be accessed once a patient has consented to a healthcare provider accessing that data.

Smart contracts are little bits of code on the blockchain that executes itself once a certain task or action has occurred. In a medical setting, this may mean that a healthcare practitioner would only be able to access patient data once consent has been given or once that healthcare provider has verified their identity.

The implications for the NHS is monumental. It could ensure that only those with authorisation would be able to access patient data. This means that information would remain inaccessible to those who are not permitted to view it.

This is already in use in some countries. For example, in Estonia, there is the Electronic Health Record (e-Health Record), a nationwide system integrating data from Estonia’s different healthcare providers to create a common record every patient can access online.

KSI blockchain technology has been used to ensure the integrity of retrieved electronic medical records as well as system access logs. Patients also have access to their own information.

Another example of blockchain technology being used in a healthcare setting is MedRec, a “system that prioritizes patient agency, giving a transparent and accessible view of medical history.”

The MedRec system stores all of a patient’s information in one place, and makes it simpler for patients and doctors to view. The design of the system makes it possible for providers to maintain the blockchain through the Proof of Authority (PoA) mechanism.

Cutting Healthcare Costs On The Blockchain

A BBC investigation on financial waste in the NHS found that billions of pounds are wasted each year, despite the government funnelling £118 billion into the healthcare industry.

A separate report published by Health Affairs found that 15% of hospital budgets is spent on administration. However, this includes everything from managers, to clerks on wards helping nurses with paperwork so they are free to concentrate on care.

Furthermore, a government-commissioned review by Labour peer Lord Carter identified £5bn of savings that hospitals could make by 2020.

Therefore, it is clear that managing healthcare costs and reducing waste continues to be a major problem for the NHS.

But there are already innovations within the blockchain industry that are designed to address this issue and combat waste in healthcare.

One such project is ConnectingCare, which was created by SimplyVital Health. It makes it possible for healthcare providers to determine how much a patient’s care will cost them when bundled with multiple organisations. This means that organisations could effectively predict future healthcare costs, and identify treatment plans that will be the most cost-effective.

This technology and innovations like it can also help stakeholders to reduce waste and create accurate forecast projections.

Giving Patients Control Over Their Data

In addition to increasing transparency, restoring trust and cutting costs, blockchain technology can also give patients more control over their data. This has been discussed briefly above in terms of consent, but the technology also helps patients in other ways.

Not only can patients view their medical data, but they can also improve their health by accessing this valuable information. In some cases, patients themselves can profit from their own information.

Consider the example of Health Nexus for example. Health Nexus is another invention of SimplyHealth. It stores a patient’s information on a blockchain for all healthcare providers and patients. It will allow patients to sell their data to researchers for profit.

Summary

The NHS is one of the most comprehensive and long-standing free healthcare systems in the world. It allows millions of people in the UK access to free or affordable healthcare.

However, financial waste, data breaches and privacy concerns are among the biggest threats to the NHS today. Many of these problems have arisen due to the over-reliance on dated systems and insecure technology.

Blockchain offers a lot of promise when it comes to resolving these issues. Indeed, the potential applications of the technology within the NHS is certainly very exciting. It can play a key role in cutting costs, ensuring that patients remain in control of their data and give healthcare providers access to important patient records.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the different ways that the blockchain can boost efficiency within the NHS.

There have been many examples of blockchain systems used to assist relief efforts in times of natural disaster, combat the use of counterfeit drugs, and track clinical trials and pharmaceuticals.

While it seems unlikely that blockchain technology alone will be the panacea to all of the problems the NHS faces today, the promise it holds is certainly very compelling.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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Jan

Jan

Jan is a journalist, copywriter and human rights activist who has worked for regional newspapers, marketing agencies across the world.

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