Blockchain in Healthcare: The true potential

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After some more technical (read geeky) blogs about how to set up and use Hyperledger Fabric to its full potential, this blog will be focusing on the business opportunities of a permissioned enterprise blockchain in the health sector. We are using this technology to create a prototype of a personal health platform.

The future of Healthcare

Today everything is changing more rapidly than ever before. In the next 10 years, healthcare is said to advance more than it has in the past 100 years. Technologies such as Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Virtual Reality will completely change the way patients are treated and medical data is processed. However, one of the biggest problems still remaining is information sharing.

Nowadays, every hospital stores its own data of a patient in their local datacenter and has to use intermediaries, called hubs, to retrieve data from other hospitals. This inefficient process is very expensive and time consuming and can result in a lack of information or even outdated and incorrect information, for example about previous treatments. Sometimes systems cannot even interact with one another, making information sharing impossible. These problems can have severe consequences like medical errors.

A lack of correct and complete medical data is becoming an increasingly important issue. Recent studies show that medical errors have become the 3rd leading cause of death in the US*. Even though the technologies mentioned above show great promise, none of them provide a ridged solution when it comes to the integrity of sharing data between different organizations.

* https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/may/03/cause-of-death-united-states-medical-error

Patient data sharing

People are usually very protective about personal data sharing and even more when it concerns their personal health data. “What about my privacy? I can’t imagine what would happen if the wrong people get their hands on my medical records!”

The demand for more transparency and control of our own personal data has never been as high as today. We are convinced that we need to change the way the healthcare industry looks at medical data right now. Just ask yourself: “Do you know what’s in your health record? Do you want to know? Shouldn’t you be in control of your medical records instead of hospitals that own your data?”

What if there is a technology that could solve all these problems and fulfill patient’s needs for transparency and control of their own data? What if doctors would have certainty that they have all the correct information available and can therefore determine the right treatment more efficiently. This technology would be revolutionary and have an enormous impact on all business systems. Fortunately, this new technology is coming and developing rapidly and is called Blockchain.

Blockchain

The blockchain will allow networks to share information of which we can be sure it is the up-to-date synchronized data. It does this by recording all digital events that have ever happened on the network (in our case all patient data accesses or changes for example). This recorded history of digital events cannot be deleted or tampered with, it is immutable. When someone tries to execute a digital event, all the nodes within the network will verify if that person is authorized to do so, if not the digital event won’t be added to the recorded history nor will it be executed.

Because of this technology, we don’t need to trust someone to control all actions performed on the network. We can interact directly with each other without worries because the whole network will verify the actions itself, the verification and control on digital actions is distributed.

However, this revolutionary technology will not only be beneficial for the health sector, its uses will extend far beyond that as it will impact every single industry. This data sharing can go from asset management to supply chain traceability to identity verification.

A good example of a similar revolutionary technologies is the internet. This technology created an enormous amount of new possibilities but required businesses to completely transform themselves. ‘If you don’t make use of it, you won’t be able to compete with your opponents.’ The same goes for blockchain. Rethink the way you do business and the possibilities and advantages you will have are endless.

How does it work?

Blockchain is using, like the internet, a network consisting out of different nodes which are all interconnected. A person can be added to the network by logging in on one of the nodes of the network. All these nodes have a copy of a smartcontract. This is code that defines a set of rules about the actions that users may or may not execute on the network. Alongside this smart contract, every node also carries a list of all past actions performed on the network.

When different people try to execute functionalities from the smart contract around the same time, all these actions are collected in a new block of information. This block is verified, meaning every action within the block is verified by each node within the network, resulting in maximum integrity.

If all nodes accept the block, the block is linked to the previously accepted block. This forms a chain of blocks holding all the executed and accepted actions. Once a block is added to the chain, it cannot be altered or deleted. It provides as we call it, an immutable history of all actions on the network.

These actions as well as the blocks are all encrypted. This means that you need a key to decrypt a block or an action. Only the people involved have a key that matches this ‘lock’ so only they can see what’s in it. This makes it possible for patients to see everything that has happened to their data (transparency) with high build-in security and privacy.

The real power: A permissioned Blockchain

But we are not using just any blockchain, we are using a permissioned blockchain! Instead of creating a network were everyone can register anonymously, permissioned blockchains require you to identify yourself. Once this is done you can start sharing your information with others who also had to identify themselves. Because of this build-in identification different types of profiles (doctors, patients, researchers) can execute profile-specific actions.

Patients can be sure to who they give permission to read their personal data. Patients can even choose who can see which parts of their data at which moment. So, home care might see less info than a doctor that’s treating you at a hospital right now. But that doctor’s permission might expire once you have left the hospital all healthy again. The patient is in control!

The benefits don’t restrict to patients, doctors and researchers also hospitals can benefit from this. We are also thinking of storing a reference of a patient insurance on the blockchain. By sharing this information, the hospital can now be sure a patient has a valid insurance.

With upcoming technologies making an enormous amount of data available, scalability is also important. Permissioned blockchains are much more scalable than public because they make use of verification mechanisms which require much less computational power. Nevertheless, the blockchain is as secure, and maybe even more secure than an open blockchain. Interoperability of our system with these new technologies is essential to create a platform that is future-proof.

Conclusion

Even though blockchain technology is promising, there are still some challenges (compliancy, interoperability, data structure standardization etc.) that needs to be looked at. Permissioned blockchains are not running in real-life environment yet, but we will definitely see some in the upcoming year(s).

Big companies are already performing a lot of research around the possibilities of blockchains. We are convinced that within 7 years blockchain will be a common standard within businesses in all industries because healthcare is definitely not the only industry blockchain can (and will) disrupt.

About us

If you don’t know us yet. We are Viktor & Senne, master students in IT-engineering. For our master thesis at Craftworkz, we are exploring the possibilities of blockchain (on personal data sharing) in the health sector. This includes technical development of a health platform prototype, but also analyzing the true possibilities of the blockchain for businesses.

If you have any questions or would like to help us, feel free to leave a comment, message us on LinkedIn or mail us! viktor.desaeytyd@craftworkz.be

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