The conversation surrounding blockchain technology is typically dominated by cryptocurrencies and the technology’s disruptive potentials for the financial sector. Use-cases outside of that area don’t get nearly as much attention.
However, aside from cryptocurrencies, the technology itself has a slew of other possible applications where it holds the potential to vastly improve or even replace the current systems in place.
Of all these alternative applications, one particular sector that has drawn a lot of attention from hopeful innovators and investors is the healthcare industry. BIS Research estimates the global market of blockchain healthcare technologies will grow at a double-digit pace from 2018 to 2025, amounting to roughly $5.61 billion by 2025.
We just need to look at fundamental blockchain principles to understand why. Blockchain technology is relatively immutable, decentralized, and transparent. These specific traits are an incredible boon to the healthcare industry – an industry where security, traceability, and transparency are vital not just to comply with existing laws, but also to be effective at saving lives.
Blockchain technology has made several impacts on the healthcare industry. For today’s article, we will be talking about the current problem of healthcare silos and how blockchain technology aims to solve it.
What are Data Silos?
Healthcare data is strictly regulated and protected. Any system built to store, manage, and distribute this data must, in turn, be designed to comply with said regulations.
So, how would this sort of data be traditionally managed by your local doctor’s clinic? What about a hospital?
According to a recent report published by Deloitte, healthcare providers typically update patient data each time a medical service is provided to this patient. This data would, in turn, be stored in a database within that singular organization, or a limited network of healthcare partners. The data isn’t accessible by anyone outside – it is siloed.
This seems fine in a vacuum. However, in many regions, healthcare markets are typically not dominated by a single healthcare provider or network.
In an article written for the MIT Technology Review, Mike Orcutt wrote that “[t]here [were] 26 different electronic medical records systems used in the city of Boston, each with its own language for representing and sharing data”. Many cities also are in a similar predicament, with the Hong Kong government stating that electronic medical/patient record systems in the region are generally understood to be incapable of data sharing on a large scale (if at all).
Okay, so Data Silos exist. How are they a problem?
If a patient has accessed medical services across a variety of different healthcare providers, it is not only difficult for a doctor to access all the data scattered across different networks, but it is also difficult for patients to access and organize their own healthcare records.
A Harvard Business Review article details how this can potentially impact patient lives by outlining what a typical healthcare regimen for ESRD (End-Stage Renal Disease) patients would typically entail.
According to the article, ESRD patients receive care through a variety of different healthcare providers that oftentimes would be located in different locations. These can include “…outpatient dialysis units, primary care practices, specialty clinics, hospitals, and others – which often don’t communicate”. Assuming that information collected at each provider is siloed, critically important data can be locked up and out of reach of other providers in that chain of care.
Many other diseases would also involve similarly dispersed chains of care. So, to make sure that every single touchpoint with the patient is well informed and up to date, healthcare silos are a major problem that needs to be addressed for healthcare delivery standards to be raised.
How can Blockchain Technology Solve this?
Systems built on blockchain technology would be more resistant to hacking compared to current systems, given its consensus-based means of verifying the validity of a “transaction”. Its decentralized nature removes the centralized point of vulnerability that is endemic to traditional healthcare information systems. It also means that all transactions, additions, or changes that occur on the chain will be stored.
These possibilities are pertinent because if medical records can be shared amongst institutions without increasing the risk of security breaches and violating healthcare data regulations, data silos have less of a reason to exist, as healthcare providers and patients would both benefit from data being accessible at all healthcare delivery touchpoints.
What projects are currently underway to realize these concepts?
There is a multitude of different projects looking to build blockchain-based healthcare information systems that will introduce greater levels of security, accountability, and accessibility than current systems. The following companies are prominent examples in this space.
Factom is a Blockchain-as-a-Service platform for data provenance and integrity. In November 2016, they received a grant of 498,391 USD from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “to build a Proof of Concept prototype of a digitized medical record system for individuals living in remote developing areas of the world”.
Similarly, BurstIQ is a HIPAA and GDPR compliant platform that allows “[a] global data network that connects solutions to each other and the people they serve, immutable health ID and profiles for people, places, and things…”, and a whole suite of other capabilities for healthcare providers to elevate their existing level of services.
The push for revolutionizing healthcare information systems isn’t just coming from the supply side, substantial demand is also pushing for innovation in the form of large healthcare providers. For example, CoinTelegraph reported that Myongji Hospital, one of South Korea’s largest hospitals, has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Korean IT company BICube to develop a blockchain-based medical services platform.
How far off are we from a future where these systems will be widespread across the globe?
Many challenges remain for blockchain-based technologies. For example, if different blockchain-based healthcare information systems concurrently exist, and yet are not interoperable with each other, the fundamental problem behind data silos would still exist, albeit in a different form. Interoperability remains one large obstacle to blockchain technologies making data silos entirely a thing of the past.
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