Healthcare patient data is fragmented in technology silos. For example, a hospital system might keep patient records on one technology platform, while billing you from another. Or a clinical specialist will record your data on an electronic health record that is completely different from your primary care doctor. It’s why healthcare and the blockchain is an important consideration.
From a technology perspective, it’s a patchwork of sometimes interoperable platforms and applications. These piecemeal frameworks mirror the multi-faceted segments that make up the healthcare delivery networks in our country. These complexities make the transfer of critical patient data challenging.
In the old days, patients hand-carried a paper file from doctor to doctor. Today, your history, imaging scans and test results are electronic. But problems still arise with the transfer of patient data between computer programs that vary widely by vendor.
Today, there is new technology currently tied to the electronic currency bitcoin that might hold promise for bringing all these separated pieces of patient data into one place — and the patient will control the relationship between healthcare and the blockchain.
Healthcare and the blockchain
Blockchain is a series of computational computer algorithms designed to record financial or other data in a way that is permanent and tamper-proof. It was created as a new technology to distribute and record data not in one computer system, but a network of participating “nodes.”
Blockchain is the technology behind bitcoin — a digital currency. Bitcoin is tied only to the internet, not to any country or currently subject to any sort of regulation. Using bitcoin eliminates credit card, bank fees, and taxes.
Blockchain technology is about democratizing and securing data — transactions are not housed in one database, but in many computers.
It creates an impenetrable method of documentation that cannot be erased because the record is held simultaneously on multiple distributed computing platforms. That’s why healthcare and the blockchain is such an important relationship.
The algorithms require that every computer in the network agree on the transaction before completing it. This makes it much harder for hackers to breach at any one point in the distributed computing network. That’s why this particular part of computer science is so potentially revelatory for financial or other transactions.
Interestingly, blockchain — as it’s being used in bitcoin applications — completely eliminates the need for banks to record and store currency transactions.
Think about that for a second.
In traditional computing, the sponsoring organization — for example, a credit card company, the IRS, or a hospital — technically “owns” that data. In healthcare, the hospital controls your electronic health record (EHR) because they own the technology that houses it. Under this same framework, who owns your social media posts? Can you say Facebook?
Blockchain smashes this model right out of the park. That’s why the healthcare and blockchain relationship holds real potential. Blockchain gives patients the chance to regain control of their electronic healthcare records. At least that’s the theory, anyway.
Testing the links: Blockchain in the health system
Researchers at MIT are working on a concept called MedRec, a healthcare application for blockchain whose goal is to unite all the disparate patient record-keeping technologies under one umbrella. Scientists spell out the problem in the following way:
“Electronic Health Records (EHRs) were never designed to manage the complexities of multi-institutional, lifetime medical records. As patients move between providers, their data becomes scattered across different organizations, losing easy access to past records. As providers — not patients — are the primary stewards of EHRs, patients face significant hurdles in viewing their reports, correcting erroneous data and distributing the information.”
MedRec works by using the Ethereum blockchain that tracks electronic health data, including who has permission to view or change the types of medications a person is using. It’s a conceptual prototype that’s being tested, so it’s unclear when and if providers will jump on the healthcare and the blockchain bandwagon.
Wired suggests that healthcare and the blockchain could empower physicians. They note doctor burnout is at an all-time high, in part because the promise of EHRs has not been fully realized. Clinical providers are spending too much time recording data instead of being able to cross-functionally share it.
While MedRec is an early ideation of blockchain applications in healthcare, the Harvard Business Review is already predicting the technology as the new disrupter of any system that works with stored data. They say they possibility both “unnerves and enthralls in equal measure.”
Putting the patient’s data in the hands of the patient
Researchers say that using blockchain technology in healthcare would not only eliminate interoperability issues between computer platforms, it would allow patients to regain control of their personal medical information that is currently controlled by doctors and health systems that employ them. Isn’t that the way it should be? It will be interesting to see how this technology shakes out.