Blockchain Technology Moving into Healthcare

Posted September 24, 2018

What is blockchain, and what does it mean for healthcare technology?

On a fundamental level, blockchain consists of a list of records or data that are linked together through cryptography. The technology, when used as a distributed ledger system, allows for data to be distributed, accessed, and protected from alteration without needing a central repository—of course, it’s much more complicated than that. The concepts of blockchain can be challenging at first. That’s in large part because the technology is less of a system or service that can be bought into, and more a worldview for how data is to be handled.

Today, the technology is most commonly associated with cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin. For the healthcare and medical device industry, the question is: When will blockchain be used to help manage and protect its growing ledger of sensitive data? And, how might it eventually transform the industry.

These questions were explored in a recent Blockchain Health summit in Washington, DC, that brought together technology and healthcare innovators. While blockchain technology itself is well understood, its potential healthcare applications reside mostly on the horizon. Most presenters at the summit agreed that the use of blockchain is in an early pilot phase for a handful of healthcare delivery organizations, with more mainstream implementation still five or more years away.

“We’re still in the ‘crawling’ phase,” said Michael Marchant, systems integration manager UC Davis Medical Center, who presented on the current state of blockchain technology use in healthcare. “There are specific people who have used blockchain in healthcare to do specific things, but as a vendor solution that will be sold to a healthcare system, that is still years away until we see marketplace-ready technology. You may see more adoption earlier in identity management, which might be a good place for blockchain to start.”

Most pilots are utilizing the technology for device registration, authentication, and consent management, Marchant said. For example, blockchain technology can be used to register medical devices on a hospital network to make sure they’re appropriate, and it may add additional layers of security compared with current methods.

Arizona Care Network plans to launch a pilot program this fall that, through blockchain-enabled decentralization of information, is intended to break down barriers between physicians and patients and allow for better collaboration among different providers, who otherwise would keep their data separate from one another. Blockchain-enabled healthcare technology even has the potential to facilitate peer-to-peer payments using “tokens,” a callback to the technology’s cryptocurrency DNA.

“In the healthcare industry, most of the use testing of blockchain has been centering around the issues of collaboration. The technology itself is well understood,” said Michael Jacobs, senior distinguished engineer at Optum, a division of UnitedHealth Group, who participated in the summit.

Ultimately, though, the potential success of blockchain will depend not just on enabling industry to rethink how healthcare data is managed. It has to be reliable and make workflows easier rather than more difficult in order to gain traction.

“We can’t just put another layer of technology on—people are tired,” said Heather Flannery, co-founder of Blockchain in Healthcare Global and the co-chair of HIMSS Blockchain Task Force, who emphasized the technology’s potential. “If we can figure out how to make their lives easier, make their work more efficient, and shorten their workflow, we will have something. Blockchain has a huge opportunity for us to go down that path.”