You may have come across the term blockchain at some point and wondered what it was. To put it simply, blockchain is a ledger of transactions that is copied and verified by multiple online entities. The power of blockchain technology is its dispersed nature and incorruptible accuracy. These advantages have already opened up new fields in finance, law and science, but health care may be the next industry to adopt blockchain and leverage it to advance the field.
How Does Blockchain Work?
Most people—even those who use blockchain regularly—don’t understand the technology behind blockchain. There are a lot of complicated technical details, but the basic concept is easy to understand. You begin with someone who wants to record some information like a financial transaction. Normally, you would merely record it in a single source, but this leaves it vulnerable to theft or alteration.
However, in a blockchain, when you enter new data it is sent to an entire peer-to-peer network. This P2P network uses a validation system to ensure the accuracy of the information and the user’s identity. The new data is then entered into the record across the P2P network, like a new block in a chain of already verified blocks.
In reality, a peer-to-peer network is millions of computers, each working independently to verify any new submissions. Originally implemented in 2008 to develop bitcoins, blockchain has been in operation without issue since then.
The Advantages of Blockchain
The concept of blockchain is relatively simple, but the benefits of this new technology are enormous. The following are just some of the reasons why so many companies are adopting blockchain:
- Redundancy—because transactions are recorded on thousand or millions of nodes, i.e. computers, there is almost no chance of loss.
- Accuracy—unlike traditional data collection which involves only one or a few ledgers, there are millions of nodes that are independently verifying the information. Without confirmation across all nodes, new information is not entered into the blockchain.
- Transparency—most traditional ledgers are private which leaves them open to erroneous or willful manipulation. Blockchain, however, utilizes a public algorithm to confirm authenticity and a public registry that any user can access to verify the source of the new data.
- Eliminate administrators—before blockchain, there was the need for gatekeepers like banks that recorded and verified transactions. Now this function is performed almost continuously by all the nodes in a P2P network.
- Lower costs—because the network performs many of the functions that administrative institutions used to, the overall costs of maintaining a blockchain ledger are reduced.
- Fast access—instead of waiting on the results of a query which used to take time to negotiate firewalls of a central hub, you may now instantly access a blockchain merely by visiting any of the nodes of the P2P network.
- User control—you no longer need to relinquish control of your data to a third party.
- Better security—few systems have as much power to secure data as blockchain. Blockchain has a powerful encryption system and distributed registry that repulses hacking attempts, making it ideal for industries that must share information while keeping it private.
How Blockchain Improves Health Care
Before you can understand how blockchain can improve health care, you need to understand more about the health care system in the United States. Unlike many countries where there is a single administrator for the entire industry, the U.S. is a patchwork of entities that include government agencies, insurers, and private organizations. This often means that there are multiple operating systems within communities, hospitals and, even, departments.
This means that it can be difficult for computers even in the same office to share information. This can be extremely problematic if one medical provider is treating a patient and is seeking the medical records from another provider whose operating system is incompatible. This firewall prevents sharing of critical patient information that may affect the outcome of the new treatment.
This problem is often compounded by the fact that many patients see multiple providers which may include hospitals, medical specialists and hospitals. In many cases, providers don’t even know where to start looking for relevant patient information.
Blockchain allows patient records to follow the patient no matter where they obtain medical services. Because all of a patient’s history is entered into the blockchain, once a doctor or hospital accesses one of these records, they would have access to the entire record.
This new system would enable providers to instantly obtain a comprehensive history of a patient. This could help prevent redundant treatments that have failed in the past, lower the risk of harming a patient who is allergic to certain compounds or avoid a cross reaction with an ongoing treatment.
One of the major concerns with blockchain technology is that it doesn’t seem to do much to stop privacy breaches. There is an epidemic of data breaches in the health care industry. Almost one in four patients has been a subject of a data breach, or almost 100 million patient records annually. About 71 percent of these incidents are insider attacks.
Blockchain may actually open up health records to more attacks. Although some measures could be taken to authenticate only authorized users, it would still be extremely difficult to prevent unauthorized access. To limit this kind of vulnerability, new security systems may need to be developed to ensure patient privacy.
The health care industry would have to weigh the benefits of instant access to patient records against the potential risk of compromising patient privacy. On the one hand, you could dramatically lower the risk of medical errors, but, on the other hand, you could be exposing private information to criminal organizations.
Ultimately, blockchain has enormous promise, but this technology may require more maturation before it can be implemented throughout the industry. If new security strategies can be created, we may soon witness a new era in health care.