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Blockchain Cases for Healthcare. Industry Review

Nick Kurat
Nick Kurat
publish date July 26, 2018 Tags share article

We assume that the reader is aware of machine learning and innovative cases for the medical industry. In fact, all this medtech requires data but keeping it secure, sharing effectively and complying with regulation simultaneously is unprecedently challenging. It seems that the blockchain technology offers a solution.

Supply Chain Supervision in Healthcare

The easiest option for using blockchain in healthcare is to track the supply chain of, for example, conventional drugs or drugs containing narcotic substances and those that require special control. This is evident, as blockchain in supply chain management has been used for a long time. Today, it is hard for consumers to track who produced the drug they are buying. When purchasing a medicine, you can ask for a certificate for it, but no one prevents an unscrupulous supplier or seller from forging it.

If all the information is stored in the blockchain from the moment of release and to the arrival at the local pharmacy, we can practically track the whole chain. Blockchain allows seeing where exactly the drugs are coming from and where they should be transferred to, their quantity, and even transportation conditions for every point of time. Moreover, each medicine can be fingerprinted and, thus, impossible to forge or misused. It is especially important when it comes to narcotic substances or vaccines for children. In order for the technology to work, the medicine package is labeled with a barcode, according to which a special application enters the block. The information stored in it cannot be changed or deleted, and this immutable, shared ledger is a huge advantage over a database.

An example of such technology is MediLedger project, which unites many participants in the pharmaceutical industry, including such giants as Pfizer, Genentech and a number of large distributors. The project was launched in 2017, and the tests of MediLedger will be completed within 5 years: in 2023, the US law will come into force, according to which the movement of all prescription drugs should be controlled by means of a single electronic system, not yet created. The existing systems on the market do not allow controlling the entire chain from the producer to the consumer. While MediLedger initiators believe that their project will solve this problem, the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries possess thousands of standards and regulations that have to be met. This makes the case even more ambitious and innovative but time will show if they can achieve the goal.

Health Databanks

Currently, vaccination records and general medical data are stored in clinics’ electronic databases. As clients, we ourselves do not have any mechanisms to control what happens to our medical cards. Theoretically, they can be transferred to unknown organizations or simply be lost because of a system failure. If the information is stored in the blockchain, the situation changes fundamentally. You can implement an application that will temporarily provide access to the medical record of the patients to the owners of that data, their treating doctors, and scientific organizations. Clients will independently be responsible for the third-party access to their medical cards, but it will be absolutely transparent.

Ultimately, the task is to create a system for storing information about patients and organizing convenient access to it for medical institutions, research programs, and statistical analysis. Blockchain can allow one to accumulate information throughout the life of the patient while ensuring data portability and a high level of security. Implementing data storage systems on the blockchain will provide medical institutions and patients access to EMR (electronic medical records), while patients will be in complete control over their data and will be able to easily search for their records that are encrypted and stored in blockchain.

Thanks to encryption with several keys, a blockchain-based system will provide access to data only if the patient signs the appropriate permission (possibly for a limited period). Moreover, such permission can be implemented through a smart contract between a patient and a medical institution. For example, the American company SimplyVital Health developed a system a year ago that allows the exchange of patient data between several clinics. By the end of 2017, the company had already announced the development of a new, larger infrastructure system.

Based in the US, Patientory is also dealing with this issue. This company was launched only a year ago and there is no special news from it yet. Even so, the development of the universal EMR, health databanks and research commons present ubiquitous standardization and data accumulation. In turn, it gives a tremendous opportunity for data processing of the disease history and new preventive types of diagnoses — the next step for medicine. However, even such mammoths as IBM are cautious and introduce their solutions gradually. IBM Watson Healthcare announced the exploration of the blockchain use in the transfer of personal data to oncological patients about a year ago, but so far there is not much information on new findings.

The Issues of Using Blockchain in Healthcare

Blockchain is great for a small amount of information, but medical data is vast and cumbersome. The complexity and amount of the information can cause serious problems for blockchain implementation. Industry experts warn against the excessive praise of technology and recall the range of difficulties that arise in the case of active technology introduction in the medical market. Experts do not have confidence that the data storage system on blockchain will be safe in the end, because other people outside the healthcare system (hackers) can intercept the information. Medical data are much more valuable than credit card numbers. Therefore, the attacks to obtain them will be more sophisticated.

Another serious problem is the lack of laws that regulate actions for blockchain platforms. To date, the situation is as follows: in order to use blockchain in medicine successfully, legislators in many countries will have to revise the regulatory framework. Otherwise, the promising technology runs the risk of getting into the “gray” legal zone. On the other hand, a law professor and author of the “Rules for a Flat World” Gillian Hadfield suggests that this is what we need: a fundamental revision of the legal infrastructure and automation of complex industries, be it law or healthcare, with help of blockchain.

Future Perspectives for Distributed Ledgers in Healthcare

Secure and distributed ledger technology automation uncovers enormous potential for revolutionizing the industry. From the economic point of view, we are going to witness cost-efficiency, new levels of analysis and predictions, and more market-based practices: services like OpenBazaar could let doctors and health practices bid to supply medical services. From the social standpoint, society is going to be healthier and more protected via shared test results, prescriptions, diagnoses, treatments, and physician referrals. What is more, proof-of-insurance will serve as a critical indicator of state welfare, but we will cover insurance use cases in the future article.

Unlike the finance industry, new products in healthcare are introduced much more cautiously and slowly. In addition to the fact that the industry is one of the most regulated and conservative, the introduction of new technology requires serious financial investments. For example, in order for a clinic to be able to exchange patient data even within one country, it is necessary not only to create a common network but also to provide a much higher level of cybersecurity in the medical facilities and further train the staff. All this has a noticeable effect on the timing of the development appliance and is unlikely to allow us to see large-scale medical projects implemented in the blockchain in the coming months. However, even a limited implementation of the blockchain will be a serious test of the prospects of the technology in other areas.