Blockchain’s emergence stirs new possibilities in healthcare
It’s hard to pin down a concise definition of blockchain because uses branch out into areas as diverse as banking, real estate, supply chain management and electoral processes. But we’re here to talk about healthcare, where experts view blockchain as a foundational technology with massive potential for innovation and growth.
The open-access journal Blockchain in Healthcare Today follows developments across multiple fields of interest including data integrity, privacy preservation, health information systems interoperability, permissioned data security, clinical support, revenue cycle automation, and the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning tools. The journal describes the following predictions for blockchain activity over the next several years:
- Maximizing fluidity of data exchange. Stakeholders (i.e., patients, providers, payers and IT vendors) will commit to making data discoverable based on self-set parameters. Users will connect via cloud to a central blockchain network of FHIR-compatible servers, where an ID keychain and master index will locate desired information, match it to available data, and then deliver it to the requestor. By eliminating the need for organizations to build and maintain multiple gateways with multiple entities, blockchain could significantly reduce IT costs.
- Building trust in public health and healthcare initiatives. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a need for more developed ways of certifying vaccinations. Expect expansion of certificate solutions for all types of vaccinations — not just for COVID. Further scaling would enable other delivered healthcare services to be “proven” through blockchain technology.
- Integrating edge network communication with the core network. Devices that combine sensor technology and AI to generate healthcare data will have to be auditable. Watch for blockchain to establish proof of data origin and a record of the algorithm signatures that processed the data.
Related story: How can edge computing improve healthcare data operations?
Currently perceived HIE benefits and risks
Additional research suggests that blockchain-powered platforms could replace existing mechanisms for health information exchange (HIE). In-depth interviews with physicians indicate varying levels of support and concern regarding the rollout of blockchain in HIE projects.
Although 87 percent of study participants were very or somewhat positive about utilizing blockchain in healthcare, they consistently advised that healthcare entities should conduct a thorough needs assessment and feasibility analysis before selecting it as a solution.
On the plus side, 92 percent of respondents cited blockchain’s strong encryption mechanism and access control as its most important benefit. Also noteworthy, according to 76 percent of interviewed physicians, is the technology’s positive effect on data immutability, storage, aggregation and consistency. Finally, 71 percent of respondents said blockchain’s interoperable structure could enhance collaboration among healthcare organizations.
At the same time, 89 percent of participants expressed concern that most users in healthcare remain unfamiliar with blockchain and its applications. Not far behind among perceived risks, 84 percent said implementation issues could be a major barrier to blockchain-based HIEs. Also highlighted, 78 percent noted that a lack of supportive rules and regulations regarding blockchain deployment in healthcare could discourage users from integrating the technology into their practices.
Overall, this technology appears to have established a foothold in healthcare due to its unique technological features and prospects for enhancing collaboration and improving system performance. Nonetheless, applications of blockchain are still emerging and need to be studied as part of an organization’s strategic planning process.
Frank Irving is a Philadelphia-based content writer and communications consultant specializing in healthcare, technology and sports.