Blockchain, it is said, is the internet of the 21st century. Virtually every industry is looking for ways to integrate the blockchain technology into its existing structure. Many experts are of the opinion that the healthcare industry, in particular, could benefit enormously from adopting the technology, which they believe could be the solution to the interoperability problem in healthcare.
A report from the International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that 20% of healthcare organizations could adopt the blockchain technology by 2020. It is a very interesting prediction, given the fact that healthcare has been noticeably slow in adopting blockchain technology compared to other industries like finance or information services. It is, however, entirely understandable, as the healthcare industry has very strict regulations and the stakeholders are hesitant to embrace new technologies due to security concerns.
With this being the case, the prediction that one in every five healthcare organization could adopt blockchain technology in just two years from now might seem a little too optimistic. If you, however, analyze the current situation of the healthcare industry – particularly with respect to the interoperability problem – you can understand why the industry needs to adopt blockchain technology and how it could benefit from it.
The Interoperability Problem in Healthcare
Data exchange is of great importance in the healthcare industry. The average patient consults different physicians and gets treated at different hospitals for various problems. Currently, when a patient gets admitted to a hospital, the doctor does not have complete access to the patient’s past medical history, as it is scattered across different systems in different hospitals, where the patient might have got treated before.
The doctor can go through the records that are available, but if they need more information on the patient’s health condition, they can only obtain it through clinical interventions like x-rays, scans, or lab tests. This is a waste of time and money, as most of these tests might not be required if the doctor could just access the patient’s data whenever they need. This is where the concept of interoperability enters the picture.
The Need for Interoperability
Currently, healthcare organizations have their own databases, which they have complete control over, and they meticulously maintain the health records of all the patients that get treated there. They do not, however, have a proper mechanism to share the data with each other as and when needed.
If healthcare organizations could share data with each other, it will make a doctor’s job a lot easier, as they will have complete access to the patient’s entire medical history. Moreover, clinical interventions like lab tests or imaging studies need not be done again and again, as the doctor could, in most cases, access the most recent test results and obtain the information they need.
A robust data sharing mechanism serves two key purposes.
- Firstly, it prevents patients from being unnecessarily exposed to radiation due to repeated clinical interventions. As a result, the risk of radiation-induced cancer could be reduced significantly.
- Secondly, repeated lab tests and other such diagnostic procedures increase the overall costs of the healthcare system significantly. In many cases, such tests are not really required, but the doctor recommends it anyway as they have do not have complete access to the patient’s medical history. With an effective data sharing mechanism in place, unnecessary tests could be avoided entirely, which could save a lot of money in the long run.
Healthcare – The Transition from EHR to Blockchain
flickr / 159526894@N02
It should be noted that the government and the healthcare industry are aware of the importance of data sharing between different hospitals. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which was passed in 2009, was the first step taken in this direction.
The government allocated $30 billion to incentivize healthcare organizations – irrespective of their size and capacity – to switch to Electronic Health Record (EHR) and digitize their health records. The step has yielded positive results, as 96% of non-federal acute care hospitals have adopted EHR today. While it has made it easier for hospitals to create and maintain health records, data sharing still remains a problem due to the lack of a safe and reliable platform. This is precisely where blockchain enters the equation.
Blockchain as a Data Sharing Platform
A blockchain based data sharing platform could be ideal for healthcare organizations due to several reasons.
- Each organization or hospital can retain 100% ownership of their data on the blockchain platform and make sure no one can access the data without asking their permission first. Upon receiving a request from another doctor or hospital, they can give access to that particular person, for a particular set of data, for a particular period of time.
- Each set of data uploaded on the blockchain platform has an owner – an individual practitioner or an organization. The ownership can be easily verified and the risk of data fraud – where someone claims ownership of someone else’s data – can be entirely eliminated.
- It is estimated that nearly 40% of healthcare data is unencrypted, which means a large number of databases are extremely vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks. On a blockchain based platform, all the data entered would be automatically encrypted and protected against hacks and other such attacks.
- Smart contracts can not only facilitate interoperability between different players, but also make the process of data sharing faster and more efficient. It can automate the process to a great extent and eliminate the need for a central authority on both sides to oversee the data sharing process.
- Blockchain can also facilitate patient-driven interoperability, wherein patients can upload the data from their personal health monitoring devices onto the blockchain and share it with their doctors any time they want. It can help physicians get a complete picture of the patient’s lifestyle and health condition.
The Path Ahead
On the whole, the current healthcare setup could benefit tremendously from adopting blockchain technology. Many healthcare organizations have realized that blockchain could be the missing piece of the interoperability puzzle and are taking steps in the direction. So, it seems very likely that the transition from pilot projects to large scale adoption of blockchain technology could happen in the very near future.