The US is poised to reach a national healthcare expenditure (NHE) of $6.2 trillion by 2028. Seems far away, right? Well, while seven years may seem like an eternity, the truth is that healthcare continues to be plagued by skyrocketing costs, crowded hospitals, inefficient practices, and concerning security breaches. And while most global healthcare systems are slowly breaking away from the slow, clumsy, paperwork-ridden structures they were 20 years ago, there are still hurdles to jump over. Luckily, today, hospitals, practices, insurance companies, and pharma organizations control and monitor patients’ health and treatments more efficiently thanks to the birth and adoption of advanced modern technologies. These ubiquitous technologies enable clean and efficient data collection and sharing while allowing patient health management and monitoring at previously unseen scales. The system’s ability to function can thereby increase and, hopefully, help healthcare systems worldwide decompress and start saving lives, time, and money. One of these technologies is blockchain.
Blockchain–the technology that took the financial sector by storm with its tamperproof nature–has now proven to be extremely useful in countless other industries, including healthcare. Blockchain is helping stakeholders solve the industry’s most pressing needs in an efficient, low-cost, no-hassle manner, thus increasing the system’s capacity to operate and save lives. And, with the newfound, pandemic-driven increase in the demand for home-based healthcare solutions, the importance of using technologies like blockchain is more indisputable than ever.
So, from our experience as leaders in healthcare and Fintech app development, and seeing we’ve successfully used blockchain for our apps before, we wanted to delineate the importance of blockchain for the medical industry. We tried to outline how it is being applied to help solve the sector’s issues and needs. Read on to find out more!
What is Blockchain and How Does It Apply to Healthcare?
At its core, we can define blockchain as a distributed and decentralized digital ledger that stores data–or records–which are linked together. While it’s true that any conventional database can store information the same way, what makes blockchain different is that, due to its incorruptible nature, it guarantees security and trust in all transactions, limiting the need for intermediaries and ensuring the integrity of the information. Inherent to its design, the data stored on a block in the blockchain can’t be modified once entered, not even by the blockchain members. Moreover, the transactions are visible to all participants and have time stamps and date records to ensure they are not modified after being stored in the blockchain. Also, the technology’s decentralized nature eliminates the need for middlemen, such as banks or brokers. It ensures that the exact version of the data is visible to all members, storing it on every device connected to the chain. These desirable traits and unparalleled security sound like a haven for FinTech and financial companies, right? They are, but they’re also extremely valuable for industries where data security is paramount, like healthcare, which has recently jumped on the blockchain bandwagon.
So, what does blockchain mean for healthcare? While full blockchain adoption–or its golden age, if you will–within the global healthcare industry probably won’t come until 2030, it already offers the prospect of a promising new framework for healthcare. This framework can enable safe data sharing and support reliable health information integration across stakeholders and applications. However, we won’t have to wait ten years to see the popular distributed ledger become a part of healthcare. Studies show that about 40% of health executives already see blockchain implementation within their systems as one of their top priorities. We also see a growing number of healthcare companies increasing their spending on integrating blockchain into their operations, with an estimated $5.61 billion total expenditure by 2025.
As the data blocks in a blockchain are impossible to modify, information can’t be deleted or changed without leaving a trace, a critical feature in the case of health data safekeeping. Moreover, blockchain has the power to keep health records, patient data, clinical trial records, and research findings secure while also ensuring regulatory compliance, which, more often than not, is a headache for healthcare companies and developers alike. In pharma, for instance, blockchain can help secure the supply chain and fight against research data leaks and counterfeit drugs. This way, blockchain integration within healthcare systems promises to increase the transparency of all digital medical, pharma, and insurance transactions. It also has the potential to help all stakeholders in global healthcare systems define data provenance and establish secure protocols that can help institutions build the robustness and reliability the system so desperately needs. Let’s take a closer look at all these and more benefits that blockchain can bring to healthcare.
Blockchain Can Help with EHR Management
Put simply, Electronic Health Records (EHRs) are the digital form of a patient’s paper health information. EHRs store patients’ health data in real-time and are meant to make medical information readily available, in a secure manner, to authorized individuals. One of EHRs’ key features is that they can be created and managed by healthcare providers and other medical staff across multiple platforms, systems, and healthcare organizations. Additionally, EHRs are so versatile that they can bring together broad patient information from past and current doctors and treatments, historical visits to emergency facilities, lab test results, and prior medical imaging. All this data can be easily stored, shared, handled, and managed by physicians as the patient’s condition progresses, allowing for better monitoring and real-time sharing of the state of the disease and its treatment. On paper, these features all sound like a godsend for our fractured global healthcare system. However, in most instances, that’s not the case.
The reality is that most data sets stored in EHR systems are fragmented. For one, the vast majority of patients interact with several different healthcare providers during their treatment. This phenomenon, albeit typical, creates interoperability and integration challenges that primarily rely on the lack of access to a central repository where different physicians can see their patient’s past information. On that same token, most healthcare data systems are outdated and rely on institution-centric models that perform poorly in terms of data integrity, availability, and retrieval. This way, a patient’s medical data end up in silos, preventing its integration with information from other providers. In addition, these systems create different EHR protocols that are not fully interoperable, leading to mistakes and poor health outcomes, contributing to the hurdles we currently see in medical data sharing. So, isn’t blockchain’s secure data sharing and storing features and EHRs sensitive nature a match made in heaven? Yes, it can be.
Blockchain healthcare solutions have the potential to create an encroaching hub that links all the medical records of each patient and stores them in one place. This way, blockchain can provide an interoperable, manageable, auditable, and secure landscape of medical transactions that authorized users and data owners control. This interoperability can promote transparent and immediate access to the currently disparate data in EHRs. Additionally, the patient and other authorized stakeholders can supervise data access and track any changes made to medical records in real-time. This overseeing of data allows patients to control who accesses their records and lets them give permission benefits exclusively to their providers, researchers, pharmacists, and any other third parties they deem relevant.
In such a manner, implementing an EHR-blockchain healthcare system solution lays the groundwork for an unheard-of level of interoperability and integration of all medical data, past and present and whichever the source, to be accessed and controlled by the patient himself. This “globalization” of EHRs powered by blockchain is the best path to facilitate a complete, holistic view of patients’ health conditions and treatments. It also gives them control over their medical data and helps physicians monitor them more efficiently, ultimately resulting in better health outcomes and decompression of the system.
Blockchain Can Enhance Medical Data Security
Medical data security is one of the healthcare industry’s primary concerns. So far, regardless of the countless security measures and technological advances available to place the proper safeguards in place, we’re still seeing the number of data breaches rising. Actually, HIPAA reported that over the past year, up until the end of July 2021, there were 706 healthcare data breaches. Five hundred or more records were compromised, and the medical data of almost 44,000,000 individuals were illegally accessed and compromised. We’re talking about a staggering average of 58.8 data breaches and over 3.60 million records that were hacked per month! Sadly enough, these past years’ statistics aren’t the only concerning ones. In previous years, specifically between 2009 and 2018, more than 59% of the United States population had their medical data stolen. That’s over twelve years of the healthcare sector’s issues with data security, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Until now, when blockchain will, hopefully, come to save the day.
Implementing blockchain solutions or blockchain-based data storage systems in healthcare facilities is an excellent fix for most industry security issues. As you already know, blockchain allows users to access data and store information in a secure, accountable, and distributed manner. In addition, stakeholders can use blockchain-powered solutions to save relevant medical data permanently and continuously check it for authenticity since any changes or alterations will immediately become evident. As a result, patient data can be created or stored in text and multimedia formats, protected against unauthorized access, and encrypted using sophisticated cryptographic algorithms and security schemes. Moreover, it can help fight differential versioning of identities and enable secure user identification, an essential feature in healthcare. In addition, data constantly flows from wearable medical and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) devices. Most importantly, patients can play an active role in the safety of their medical information and help safeguard this data, becoming the second pair of eyes that helps increase the security and integrity of records.
Adopting blockchain and blockchain-powered solutions in healthcare scenarios could save the US healthcare industry up to $100-$150 billion per year by 2025. These cost savings are reflected in reduced data breaches, operations, and IT support costs, as well as in a reduction in counterfeit products in the case of pharma companies.
Nonetheless, however valuable and cost-saving blockchain technology is for healthcare organizations to mitigate the impact of data breaches, the truth is that, on its own, blockchain is not inherently safe. Yes, it is one of the best ways to enhance medical data safety, but it does not replace other security management protocols that companies should already have in place. Instead, blockchain has the capacity to augment all the existing security solutions and ensure the safekeeping of the information. Implementing blockchain will probably become a must for all healthcare organizations worldwide at some point, but for now, it should not be the only protocol component in an organization’s strategy. We strongly suggest you accompany your blockchain-powered solution with identity management tools, encryption, authorization and authentication protocols, and end-to-end security, among others.
Blockchain Can Help In Supply Chain Management
The healthcare supply chain is an often overlooked but crucial component of efficient medical and pharmaceutical service delivery. The healthcare supply chain is a complex structure that stretches through multiple geographical and organizational boundaries and ranges from the materials used for medical device assembly to the chemicals and components for pharmaceutical drug manufacturing. On that continuum, healthcare supply chain management has different functions. Still, it mainly refers to the acquisition and distribution of services and products, from when they arrive at the healthcare or pharmaceutical organization’s receiving dock to when they reach the patient. For this reason, optimal healthcare supply chain management is essential in securing an adequate and constant supply of medical products and medications to ensure the highest quality of care for patients.
The healthcare supply chain accounts for approximately 25-30% of the operational costs within the healthcare system, more than a quarter of the total healthcare expenditure in the US. For this reason, supply chain management deserves a spotlight in the healthcare ecosystem. Stakeholders must address it effectively to ensure that those costs don’t keep rising and the supplies needed for medical service delivery are always available. Nonetheless, healthcare supply chain management is a highly complex matter to deal with due to a lack of automation, interoperability, regulatory requirements, data silos, and poor standardization processes, to name a few. Luckily, blockchain technology represents an effective and immediate solution for most of these problems. Imagine for a minute how lightened the healthcare burden would’ve been during the pandemic if hospital staff members knew how many test kits, masks, and ventilators were available for any given location, all in real-time. How different things would’ve been if they had accurate information on supply location, COVID-19 medications, and even vaccine information. Well, this is precisely what a blockchain-powered supply chain system would do.
As we stated above, since healthcare supply chains significantly impact patient safety, effective supply chain management is crucial within the medical and pharmaceutical ecosystems. For this reason, implementing a blockchain-based system for supply chain management built on a decentralized storage system can vastly improve the logistics, handling, and distribution processes for supply chains within the entire healthcare system. For one, with this solution in place, manufacturers, buyers, and all healthcare providers are connected via a decentralized blockchain network that promotes transparency, and data immutability makes information visible to the chain members and secures data exchange within parties. These features are especially relevant for pharma since the increased visibility can stop fraudulent drugs from entering the market. And since blockchain fosters trust within the network, it enables the unification of supply chains between different territories where members who don’t know–or trust–each other can still share sensitive data without any worries.
On the other hand, blockchain can help stakeholders securely track and trace supplies and products, and supervise ingredients, volumes, and expiration dates. It can also help interested parties oversee the overall availability of medical items to improve distribution significantly and make quality control more efficient and less time-consuming. Moreover, blockchain-based systems can also be paired with technologies like machine learning (ML). Developers can train these ML-blockchain models to issue low stock alerts, recommend high-quality materials, forecast potential flaws within the supply chain, and help reduce costs, increase quality control and improve patient outcomes. Additionally, using blockchain as a solution for inefficient supply chains eliminates the need for intermediaries. Furthermore, it decentralizes off-chain storage, creating a constant flow of information and supplies that speeds up how medical and pharmaceutical items reach their final destination.
Blockchain Can Help Enforce Smart Contracts
Chronic disease is on the rise. It kills over 41 million people each year and accounts for most of the global healthcare expenditure. With the increase in chronic disease that we’ve experienced these past years and the sudden pressure exerted by the pandemic, physicians are finding it harder to manage every patient’s health information. They are also struggling with keeping updated records and stay on top of the data streams that flood their practices every day. Additionally, as we saw earlier, fraud cases and hacking incidents are on the rise partly due to the vulnerability of outdated legacy systems and fragmented data storage methods currently in use by most healthcare institutions. These issues must be addressed but cannot be solved by doctors and healthcare workers alone. Here’s where smart contracts come in.
Smart contracts are self-executing programs–or excuse the redundancy, contracts–written in code and stored on a blockchain to act just as a paper contract does. They are programmed to execute when certain conditions are met upon an agreement between a seller and a buyer. In this case, a provider and a patient or a pharma rep and a physician, for instance. The actions that smart contracts execute can include:
- Releasing funds for cancer treatments.
- Registering new diseases or progressions of a particular illness.
- Sending notifications regarding insurance claims.
- Supporting instant payment avenues.
When the contract is carried out, the information on the blockchain is updated, and no one can modify the transaction. Only interested are granted permission to see the details of the contract and its results. On that same token, smart contracts are trackable and immutable; however, they aren’t still widely adopted, but they are paramount for promoting interoperability and data privacy and security in cross-organizational medical processes and treatments.
Of the ten leading sources of inefficiency in healthcare practices, smart contracts can solve at least 6, if not all. Thus, their potential is enormous in terms of eliminating unnecessary paperwork and inefficient processes regarding insurance claims, hospital transfers, payments, bulling, and prescription filling. Here are some of the main ways blockchain smart contracts can help the healthcare system:
- EHRs: Smart contracts can allow all healthcare practices to store patient records in a blockchain securely. Aside from the already exposed benefits of using blockchain for EHR management, patients can also change practices or get transferred between hospitals without having to fill countless forms and make thousands of requests before getting admitted. Instead, their new physicians can simply access the blockchain network and view all their prior information. Blockchain smart contracts also eliminate restrictive hospital databases and allow the real-time sharing of life-saving patient insights without interoperability issues. Without blockchain smart contracts, transferring EHR information can take days, even months, and could potentially be illegally accessed and hacked.
- Telemedicine: Blockchain solutions are a godsend for telemedicine practices. They promote interoperability and reduce inefficiencies in medical care delivery. They can also enhance data security during telemedicine by using smart contracts coupled with the technology’s inherent immutability and privacy benefits.
- Payments: Carrying out payments in diverse healthcare scenarios can be a dragged-out, inefficient process filled with paperwork and unnecessary bureaucracy. With blockchain and smart contracts, payments can be sent and received immediately without intermediaries and in the most secure manner.
- Insurance claims: Smart contracts powered by blockchain technology can help insurance companies, patients, and medical institutions expedite the drawn-out process of insurance claims. They can completely eliminate the need for lengthy insurance claim forms by automatically triggering policies that apply when treatment is needed. They can also help stakeholders determine responsibility for the claim, costs, deductibles, and policies applicable to any given case. Moreover, smart contracts can help the parties involved process refunds or payments in real-time and help patients keep their policy details secured and stored on the blockchain.
- Prescriptions: Prescription handling and monitoring is another lengthy, paperwork-filled process among healthcare and pharma institutions. The main goal of implementing smart contracts is to streamline the prescription process by eliminating the paperwork and long waiting times that currently inundated the drug prescription system. This way, by using smart contracts, physicians can simply write a prescription and register it on the blockchain via a smart contract. The designated pharmacy then securely accesses said prescription and issues the medicine to the patient. This process also removes the counterfeit drug and fraud elements and reduces prescription mistakes.
Smart contracts are a secure, effective way of eliminating some of the protracted processes we have become accustomed to when accessing medical services. As a result, they are one of the primary highways by which blockchain can disrupt the healthcare system and revolutionize the way humans access medical care.
Real-Life Applications Of Blockchain In Healthcare
In January 2018, Viant, a blockchain firm that enables supply chain management using smart contracts, announced it would collaborate with GlaxoSmithKline, among other companies, to accelerate the use of blockchain’s track and trace technology for supply chain management. The merger aimed to accelerate the growth of Viant’s Ethereum-based supply chain management platform and implement it within the operations and logistics departments of the pharmaceutical enterprise to eliminate inefficiencies and promote the proper flow of the entire supply chain. As a result, the pharma giant started using blockchain technology to track intellectual property (IP) licenses and ensure the quality and quantity of the medical and pharma products that are produced, transported, and stored.
DokChain By PokitDok
PokitDok is a renowned healthcare software platform provider that recently partnered with Intel and introduced DokChain. DokChain is a blockchain solution exclusively designed for healthcare and aimed at improving process efficiency, data security, and establishing an alliance among healthcare systems, insurance companies, supply chains, and other stakeholders. DokChain uses artificial intelligence (AI) to develop smart contracts that connect all healthcare participants to the DokChain and with each other. It works by requesting and returning data from health insurance providers, institutions, and payers in real-time, enabling claim status checks, payments, and authorizations.
BurstIQ is a company that developed a blockchain-based platform that helps healthcare companies and institutions securely store and manage large amounts of patient data. With its blockchain-powered solution, BurstIQ enables the handling, safekeeping, sharing, and managing of EHRs and other relevant medical information and makes it shareable across multiple institutions to facilitate interoperability. It also helps healthcare companies remain HIPAA compliant by meeting all their security requirements.
Doc.ai is a Palo Alto-based startup that developed a mobile platform that uses Natural Language Processing (NPL) and computer vision through blockchain technology to generate insights from stored and shared medical data. Users can launch data trials for a particular disease, cause, or general query using their app. Users can even take “medical selfies.” The app’s blockchain system can infer age, weight, height, and other relevant data. Doc.ai also allows users to pull and sync the app with medical data from other sources. The company’s data scientists then connect the available data dots to make predictive models about the disease or condition in question. As a result, each user can get valuable insights into their data and get their questions answered. They can then securely share this data with their physician.
Blockchain in Healthcare: Final Words
According to research from Healthcare Weekly, about 40% of current healthcare executives consider blockchain technology to be one of the top five priorities in their industry. And they are not wrong. For several years now, healthcare has been reactive, meaning that patients seek medical when they are sick. Blockchain’s main gift to the industry is that it can turn it into a proactive system where physicians have real-time monitoring of their patients’ health as well as constant data streams to derive insight from. In this manner, blockchain can be the gateway to a proactive and predictive healthcare ecosystem that relies on modern technologies to push itself forward as a life-saving model. Moreover, implementing blockchain solutions can also enable public health surveillance on a scale never seen before. This surveillance can allow governments and public health authorities to get a more holistic understanding of the socioeconomic and environmental determinants of poor health conditions, thus preventing disease outbreaks and reducing healthcare costs.
However valuable and promising blockchain is for the modern healthcare landscape, there are still countless technical and legal hurdles that stand in the way of its full adoption. There are also privacy and security concerns that stakeholders must address to prevent breaches and hacking incidents that taint the distributed ledger’s reputation. So, when implementing blockchain technology, healthcare organizations must be aware of these obstacles and remain open to adopting the new organizational paradigm inherent to these types of disruptive technologies. And, since we understand that transitioning to new work paradigms doesn’t happen overnight, we believe that, even as stakeholders engage in blockchain at different paces, the technology will still find its complete adoption in little time.