It’s the year 2030. A healthcare professional is uploading patient information on a blockchain instead of storing it on a centralized database. The patient, on the other hand, gets an option to choose the vendors he wants to share this information with. As a result, he can now share his real-time vitals (from the smartwatch) and general information with multiple partners that can compete to offer him better premiums. The healthcare partners get richer data, and the patient maintains their privacy. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. What I just described is a 30,000 ft view of a problem that blockchains could solve in the healthcare industry.
Jeff Bezos once said that the biggest company of 2030 isn’t even born yet. Somehow, it reflects on the fact that how fast our tech landscape is changing. So if you are remotely connected to the healthcare industry, you should pay attention to how blockchains are coming to disrupt business models in your space. And if you are not, treat this as yet another niche that would be impacted by blockchains eventually.
What Is Blockchain, and How Does it Help Healthcare?
Put simply, blockchain is a decentralized, distributed ledger that can store data. It is just like a traditional database but with some peculiar properties that make it so powerful. For example, it is not owned or run by a centralized authority. Instead, it is managed by a set of nodes (or computers) that get rewarded for doing so. Secondly, this database is immutable. This makes it change-resistant by anyone at will.
Blockchain enables a trustless ecosystem where the interacting parties do not have to trust each other, and trust is an inherent part of the design.
Think of it like this. When you send money to your friend via UPI, it looks like a cakewalk, but in the background, it sets off an elaborate tango of events between your bank, UPI provider, and receiver’s bank. This, of course, costs time and money. While money is subsidized by the RBI and time is inconsequential in domestic transactions, this tends to blow up during foreign remittances.
Now imagine sending Bitcoin over a blockchain to a friend. The transactions happen at a lightning speed with anyone across the globe at a fraction of the cost.
But then, this looks like a finance use case. What about healthcare? Turns out that the inherent properties of blockchain still apply. It enables transparent, secure, fast, and cheap transactions between the participants.
As a result, the owners of the medical data can now exercise full control over who to share it with. Apart from that, this data is protected using cryptography, making it more secure than traditional databases. To top that off, the data is immutable. This means your timestamps for clinical trials and results cannot be forged.
Pros and Cons of Blockchain Adoption in Healthcare
I think this is the most important and often overlooked part of any new technology. Usually, the hype around tech is so much that people fail to look at the flip side of innovation. For example, did we ever envisage the ill effects of social media? Maybe not. This is why we are going to talk about the pros and cons alike of blockchain’s adoption in healthcare.
Pros of blockchain in healthcare
Rather than spewing it all at once, we’ll structure the pros from a patient’s and institutional point of view. Let’s go.
Blockchain for healthcare companies
Healthcare companies can leverage this distributed ledger in more ways than you can imagine.
1. Shared database
For starters, blockchain enables a shared repository of all customer data. For example, CRMs like Salesforce and ERPs like SAP have solved the problem of intra-organizational communication. Different departments like Finance, Sales, and Operations can seamlessly interact with each other. However, what happens when you have to interact across organizations, each having its ecosystem?
Blockchains could handle that at a faster pace and a lower price. Imagine doctors from different hospitals being able to access customer information. It would improve the overall decision-making in critical matters of life and death.
Immutability is another clear benefit of blockchains. No data can be tampered with.
Blockchains for patients
That’s the beauty of blockchains. It can enable a win-win situation for everyone, including the end users.
1. Ownership and permission
Data autonomy lies in the hands of patients instead of the tech enabler in the case of blockchains. This means that patients own the data and get to choose who to share it with.
Since the ownership of data is with the customers, they get to choose how to monetize this. For that, they can sign up to share this data with pharmaceutical companies. These companies can then use this data for clinical trials.
Blockchain for Pharmaceutical Companies and Insurance
Moving on to the auxiliary ecosystem now. Let us understand how blockchains can also impact people living in the peripheral ecosystem.
1. Clinical trials
Since the data is on a shared database, you can imagine a service where patients choose to share (and opt out) their data. All pharmaceutical companies could sign up and select eligible patients for the trials.
Also, these records are now stored in an immutable database. This means these records are a single source of truth with completely auditable sources.
2. System efficiency
Last but not least, blockchains also speed up the process of information sharing between the participants. As an insurance company, I have access to in-depth customer data. As a result, I could incentivize good practices by offering cheaper premiums.
Secondly, at the time of the claim, I won’t have to go through endless document trails to get started. Because it’s on the blockchain, all the information is available to the company already.
Cons of blockchain in healthcare
Now, there are also some downsides to using blockchain in healthcare. Most of these problems stem from the nature of the technology and might get resolved with progress. But as per the current status, here are a few issues.
- The current architecture makes it difficult for blockchains to be scalable, secure, and decentralized at the same time. This is popularly known as the blockchain trilemma. This can pose some issues in the adoption of blockchain in healthcare.
- Blockchains are immutable by nature. While this may be a boon in some cases, at times, it could also be a deterrent. This means if one wants to change their past records, they can’t.
- Blockchains are bad for data storage. Therefore, certain large files like MRIs, etc, can’t be stored on a blockchain.
Top 5 use cases of blockchain in healthcare
At its core, blockchain is a database that enables transparency, trustlessness ( the ability to operate without trusting each other), immutability, and decentralization. Piggybacking on these core benefits, there are multiple use cases of blockchain that can be envisaged in the healthcare industry. Let us have a quick look at a few of them.
1. Supply chain
Supply chains are an integral part of the healthcare ecosystem. This is mainly because of two reasons.
One, the medicines that move across this chain need to be authentic and from a verified source. Currently, the industry is plagued with counterfeit medicines that claim thousands of lives each year.
Secondly, some of these medicines are temperature sensitive. This means one needs to ensure that they stay in a specific range throughout transport.
Blockchains can become handy in both cases. One could upload the logistical data of these medicines on a blockchain to ensure immutability and visibility across the participants. Certain IoT devices can be deployed to post real-time updates on blockchain to make sure that the medicines were not exposed to temperatures beyond a certain limit throughout the journey.
These business problems improve the efficiency of the supply chain but also boost customer confidence and compliance with authorities. A similar tactic could also be applied to ensure that medical equipment is in line with the safety standards laid down by the agencies.
2. Digital health records
Let’s say you decide to purchase a term plan for yourself (or your family). You undergo a full body checkup before the application, and now the insurer has some issues with your life coverage amount, and you decide to pick another one. You will have to go through the entire process again.
Isn’t this extremely inefficient?
Well, turns out, if you put this data on a public server, anyone could access it, and you would save yourself an ounce of blood and needles.
But then, you don’t want everyone to see your medical statistics.
Turns out, blockchains can serve as the best of both worlds here. You can convert your medical reports into a hash (an alphanumeric, one-way string that can only be deciphered using your consent) and upload it on the blockchain. Thereafter, each time someone wants to access the medical data, all you got to do is permit that, and they will have access to immutable data records.
In fact, this would also save money for insurance companies.
3. Smart contracts
Let’s get this explanation out of the way already. Smart contracts are a set of if-this-then-that statements that execute themselves when these conditions are met. The best part about these smart contracts is that they are immutable.
Now, this can come in really handy in complex healthcare-based supply chains. When you are dealing with tools and medicines across the globe, the lack of trust becomes a deterrent. Smart contracts solve these problems by ensuring that funds and material quality are ensured for both the involved parties.
4. Identity and credentials: Reference check
Each company tries to ensure the quality of employees. This is done through rigorous audits and background checks. This is even more critical when it comes to healthcare executives.
Blockchains can help by maintaining immutable records of credentials that can be shared at will by the potential employee.
Some key benefits of using blockchain here are:
- Faster credentialing of healthcare professionals during the hiring process.
- It gives professionals a better ability to negotiate based on their credentials. Since they are immutable, the hirer can trust them.
5. Remote monitoring
A very real example to back this up. Off late, we came across the news of harsh lockdowns by the Chinese. Now you don’t have to be tested positive for quarantine in China.
They have a built-in feature in WeChat that marks you red or green depending on the contact tracing. Very similar to Arogya Setu in India.
The problem with the Chinese version is that they could lock down anyone at will by simply changing their status from green to red.
All remote monitoring devices like watches, rings, and sensors are facing a similar issue.
While they are a useful innovation, data privacy, sensitivity, and mutability are a cause of concern. Tech companies can leverage blockchains to upload this data and hence come up with a safe and secure database.
Blockchains are going to impact every consumer industry. While we are at the cusp of this innovation, how about being a part of it? Wondering how? Blockchains also democratize wealth by enabling people to participate in the blockchain economy through cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, etc.
But then, what token should you pick? We’d suggest you invest in a theme of tokens rather than targeting specific ones. This would help in diversification and save time. Coin Sets by Mudrex is an amazing tool to do that. Go check it out.
1. What is the future of blockchain in healthcare?
Because of their brilliant properties of immutability, transparency, and decentralization, blockchains have a fairly large impact on the future of healthcare. In the next 5 years, we will see a lot more startups taking the blockchain route to solve the business problems in the healthcare industry. Hopefully, some large players would also follow suit.
2. What problems can blockchain solve in healthcare?
Blockchains can solve most of the problems related to data redundancy i.e. sharing the same data multiple times due to a lack of tools to maintain it in a shared format. Secondly, the problem of data manipulation would not exist as blockchains offer an immutable ledger.
3. Will blockchain transform healthcare?
Hopefully yes. Blockchains are solving core business problems in the healthcare industry. Imagine being treated by a team of experts that have the overall context of your medical history, can consult someone else if need be, use the tools that have reached them through audited sources, and administer provably accurate medicines.