Taking the temperature of blockchain’s impact on healthcare

Blockchain for Healthcare

Blockchain has the potential to be a disruptive force, with implications for almost every corner of every business market out there. Healthcare, in particular, can be transformed under a blockchain model. And there are glimmers of hope in Portland’s startup scene, where companies focused on bringing blockchain to healthcare are beginning to make an entrance — a big one.

What is Blockchain?

Blockchain is a decentralized system of electronic records, or blocks, that are time-stamped and independently verified. The system functions from community input — transactions are codified into “hashes” that are then “mined” by “nodes.” If that sounds like a bunch of gobbledygook to you, check out this piece on the ins-and-outs of blockchain.

Blockchain has been made infamous by its sometimes not-so-upstanding business implications. For example, with the launch of Bitcoin also came the ability to run an immutable (and anonymous) “dark net market,” enabling all sorts of illegal purchases and disreputable behavior, including the sale of drugs and lawbreaking. 

But Bitcoin has only scratched the surface of potential uses of blockchain technology. Essentially, blockchain could easily be applied anywhere you may encounter a secured record.

Blockchain Has the Potential to Upend Traditional Healthcare Record-Keeping

Take Electronic Healthcare Records (EHRs).

Let me ask you a question: Do EHRs belong to you or your healthcare provider? Under the current system, you, the patient, must call prior healthcare providers every time you move, change doctors or have a need for a new doctor or treatment facility. Not a very efficient system, to say the least.

The current system begets the following considerations: the security of files being shared, the fact that some information could be lost or changed in the transfer, and the potential for leaving insecure data storage environments susceptible to cyber-attacks. And that doesn’t even include Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance concerns, AKA what keeps healthcare workers up at night

Healthcare companies have spent huge amounts of cash in the pursuit of data privacy and developing in-house solutions for data storage and analytics. Take the Carolinas HealthCare System. In the early 2010s, it invested millions of dollars to have Dickson Advanced Analytics manage its burgeoning EHRs.

Whether these investments prove fruitful depends on the viability of blockchain. Blockchain eliminates the need for passwords or insecure storage environments — since data is not stored in a central location, it is not easily penetrated. 

Blockchain also inhibits fraud because patients stipulate where their data is sent. Further, when medical records are sent, their integrity is preserved. In fact, patients have just one immutable medical record that follows them from provider to provider. Their records cannot be tampered with or otherwise changed, since every time they are, an audit trail is created and independently verified by the nodes. 

Simply put, blockchain is a more efficient system. Just imagine, no more calls to multiple providers to track down the record for that Hepatitis B shot you received as a child.

Disruption

Last summer, an incubator called the Oregon Enterprise Blockchain Venture Studio launched a program in which entrepreneurs interested in blockchain could present their business ideas at a demo event. (PSU is one of the studio’s partners, as is OHSU.) According to the incubator’s website, the studio is “designed to drive blockchain-led innovation, cross-industry,” and “will focus on developing startup-led products, services, and tools.”

Nestled in the incubator’s portfolio is Patientory, Inc., which according to its website, “empowers patients, clinicians, and healthcare organizations to securely access and transfer protected health information while providing actionable insights to improve health outcomes” — all benefits that come from using blockchain. Still, this launch comes in the midst of an overall volatile trend in venture capital investing in blockchain technologies. 2019 was a record-low VC investment year. 

And while we’re generally seeing positive signs for a more widespread adoption of blockchain, only time will tell if existing medical providers are able to overcome the bureaucracy, the not-so-simple task of transferring all of their existing client files into a blockchain format, and the inherent risk that comes with moving from a familiar (if imperfect) solution to a newer, unproven one. 

While blockchain is wildly useful, we have not yet seen a critical mass of consumers demanding it in the market. Nor have we seen government regulation demanding it, for that matter. Perhaps the market is not sufficiently “frustrated.” And until blockchain proves scalable, it may be years before companies and people take the chance on it.
This is the oh-so-feared “chasm” that needs to be crossed between early adopters and the early majority, and blockchain is right in the thick of it.

Blockchain and the COVID-19 Pandemic

As COVID-19 changes society in ways few could have anticipated, might we expect to see a rise in the use of blockchain? Possibly. What is perhaps more striking is how much use there is for hyperledger technologies in this new reality. 

Don and Alex Tapscott, co-authors of “Blockchain Revolution,” recently wrote a report entitled, “Blockchain Solutions in Pandemics.” The report outlines urgent solutions to healthcare issues facing the world today. Data sharing tops the list: “Data is the most important asset in fighting pandemics,” said the Tapscotts. “If any useful data exists now, it sits in institutional silos. We need better access to the data of entire populations and a speedy consent-based data sharing system.” 

Among other uses are supply chain “just-in-time” solutions, keeping cash digitized to curtail the spread of infection, and creating a rapid-response registry for medical professionals. If there is one thing to be gleaned here, it’s that we have only scratched the surface of blockchain applications.


Mikaela Todd

Mikaela Todd is a PSU MBA candidate with a finance focus. Prior to entering the program, she was the operations manager for a downtown Portland hotel. She holds a bachelor’s degree in domestic politics and modern literature from the UC-Santa Cruz and an accounting certificate from PSU. Upon her graduation, she intends to get her CPA license and work in public accounting and financial management. 

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