Over the past five years, blockchain has gained immense popularity almost from scratch. Although this popularity was somewhat overheated by the hype over Bitcoin, blockchain remains a useful and in-demand technology. Blockchain has already been successfully applied in many fields, including healthcare. In this overview, we will consider the main scenarios for using blockchain technology in healthcare, medicine, and pharmaceuticals.
Prerequisites for the use of blockchain in healthcare
Traditional mechanisms for the exchange of medical information are outdated; they no longer cope with their tasks in modern healthcare infrastructure. In some countries, a patient has to personally bring all of their past medical records to the new hospital or undergo the medical tests again.
In addition to the obvious inconvenience, the absence of a patient’s medical history can lead to improper treatment. Another problem is the lack of comprehensive information about a patient and their medical history. Incomplete patient data may be stored in databases of different hospitals.
Blockchain is the core of many modern healthcare developments. This technology offers new approaches to data storage and management models in healthcare. This is associated with the ability of blockchain to segment and protect information, as well as organize a quick exchange of medical data and services.
Blockchain-based healthcare innovations can be divided into four levels:
- data sources;
- concerned parties.
Current usage of the blockchain technologies
According to a survey of 146 medical institutions in Europe, only 4% already use blockchain; another 14% plan to start using it. Most medical institutions are not intent on using blockchain, and one in three find it difficult to answer this question. Most probably, this is associated with a low level of understanding of the technology’s capabilities and high barriers of entry.
Most stakeholders are interested in using blockchain for patient data protection and secure information exchange. Accelerating the exchange of data between participants is more important for public health authorities, while medical institutions focus on enhancing the security of traditional systems and allowing the exchange of data between new participants.
Currently, blockchain is used in medicine and pharmaceuticals in the following areas:
- management of electronic medical records;
- management of drug supply chain and fight against counterfeiting;
- control over the distribution of donor organs;
- conduction of clinical and biomedical research;
- remote patient monitoring;
- improvement of insurance and billing procedures;
- analysis of medical data.
Now let’s consider each direction in more detail.
1. Electronic medical records
Electronic medical records are one of the main applications of blockchain in healthcare. Blockchain allows ensuring the authenticity of information and control over its movement and change. That’s why blockchain is good for storing medical data, such as patient histories, prescription reports, etc.
Blockchain will also allow controlling the transfer of data between healthcare institutions. These can be public and private clinics, research centers, pharmacies, and insurance companies. In some countries, the exchange of customer data between institutions is prohibited without their consent. Such constraints, for instance, can be found in the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Blockchain helps to control this process.
For example, a joint project, by MIT Media Lab and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, called MedRec allows patients to fully control their data and decide who can access it. Some more projects that also work this way are Healthbank, Factom, Gem Health Network (GHN), HealthCombix, etc.
Thus, the use of blockchain for working with medical data gives the following advantages:
- Patients solely control their data and decide who can access it.
- Data cannot be falsified or deleted; at least it is impossible to do this discreetly and irrevocably.
- In blockchain, the data sources are recorded, and this allows their reliability to be checked at any time.
- Data on blockchain is better protected from hacker attacks. Even if the database is penetrated, it will be extremely difficult for an attacker to decrypt the information.
2. Supply chains and fight against counterfeiting
Counterfeit drugs and drugs of substandard quality are a major concern in the pharmaceutical industry. The global market for counterfeit medicines is estimated at $200 billion. Blockchain is able to solve this problem by ensuring transparency at all stages of the production, delivery, and sale of medicine.
Each transaction related to the sale of prescription drugs involves several parties: producers, sellers, pharmacists, physicians, and patients. Using blockchain for controlling supply chains will ensure the visibility of any changes or falsification attempts.
Counterfeit medicines threaten not only the health of end consumers but also the reputation and existence of the company. Putting all the information in blockchain will help to solve this problem. Factories and pharmaceutical companies will be able to confirm the veracity of the data at any time, and patients can make sure that the medicine came from a trusted source.
3. Distribution of donor organs
A clinic must have full information about the origin of organs before approving their transplantation. Regulatory authorities of many countries thoroughly monitor this process, and the introduction of blockchain in the systems for monitoring and controlling donor organs is, quite often, at the initiative of government agencies. For example, the Ministry of Health of the UAE is creating a blockchain-based system that allows tracking the origin of the organs, as well as making sure the donor has given their consent for using these organs.
4. Clinical and biomedical research
Blockchain can significantly increase research speed by optimizing the mechanisms for exchanging data between research centers. It also simplifies the process of collecting data from patients who are willing to participate in clinical investigations.
Blockchain gives the opportunity to structurize lots of information about factors that could directly or indirectly affect the results of research: patient care, trials, biomarkers, etc. The immutability property of blockchain is useful in this area too: using this technology, it is possible to confirm the authenticity of research data.
The advantages of using blockchain for medical research are the following:
- Each research organization can exchange data with others, maintaining full control over its developments.
- Information on the time of a study is recorded in blockchain, and this allows the relevance of the data to be checked.
- Confirmation of the data origin increases the accuracy of the research.
- Data becomes more accessible and real-time updates take place, which makes it possible to quickly detect threats, such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
- A guarantee of data protection and control will attract more people to research.
5. Remote patient monitoring
Blockchain allows optimizing the process of collecting patient health data remotely by using various mobile devices and sensors. Also, it helps to analyze data and is an effective repository with the ability to provide access to several institutions treating the patient.
Blockchain allows using IoT tools effectively and processing the received data. The IoT infrastructure consists of many interconnected devices, and blockchain significantly speeds up data exchange. AI can simultaneously analyze data and give medical institutions signals about the patient’s health status.
6. Medical insurance
Blockchain as a tool for working with insurance data has great prospects, not only in the healthcare sector. Insurance companies bear huge risks due to inaccurate data provided by patients. Insurers are forced to raise rates for all customers, even though some of them provide absolutely correct information.
In such a case, the ability to control the authenticity of the information provided by blockchain will be the main advantage. Thanks to this, there will be more trust between companies and their customers, and both risks and tariffs will decrease.
The advantages of blockchain for medical insurance are the following:
- Blockchain allows making the claim examination process straightforward and transparent.
- Protection of data from fraud will simplify checks and help to quickly identify fraudsters.
- Blockchain allows consolidating information distributed between companies, healthcare organizations, and customers.
- All participants will be able to quickly get access to the necessary data.
- The level of data protection from intruders will increase.
7. Analysis of medical data
Blockchain capabilities are not limited to storing, processing, and protecting data. Blockchain algorithms are able to analyze data and interact with AI and IoT. Many of the features described above are based on the interaction of blockchain with other IT tools and data sources.
Blockchain restrictions in medicine
Blockchain is a relatively new technology, and few stakeholders fully understand its beneficial prospects. The economic feasibility of introducing blockchain is not always clear, and for managers and investors, this feasibility is often a key factor.
From a technical angle, blockchain has problems as well. Blockchain’s bandwidth capacity is often inferior to less secure but more traditional mechanics. Due to the novelty of the technology, its standards have not been fixed yet, and this leads to incompatibility with some solutions and problems with scalability.
Admittedly, doctors and patients don’t fully trust blockchain any more than top managers do. Not everyone will agree to the placement of their personal data in a system, the operating principle of which they don’t understand.
When communicating with representatives of the companies that lead joint software projects together with Andersen, we sometimes touch on the topic of blockchain. Both in Healthcare and other industries, there are those who are ready to actively implement blockchain and those who are not ready for that. Some customers say bluntly that blockchain just needs to “mature” a little, to become something more usual, and people will stop being fearful of it. And given the speed new successful blockchain projects appear in the IT space, this “usualness” is not far away.