There has been much talk about the financial, quality of care and patient access issues impacting the U.S. healthcare system. Since 2010, many Americans have experienced high premium and deductible costs, fewer provider choices and other challenges associated with the enactment of the Affordable Care Act—Obamacare. This legislation has exposed massive, systematic inefficiencies in the healthcare delivery model, largely driven by outdated technology systems and protocols.
Given the rapid emergence of blockchain technology within a wide swath of market sectors, promising discussions are taking place regarding its potential utility in the healthcare industry. While most of the blockchain’s focus to date has centered on the financial sector, new applications targeting health data management, pharmaceutical supply chains, and disease management are being widely bantered about.
The trajectory of healthcare technology has traditionally ambled along at a slow pace, in part due to the likelihood of its failure and potential consequences. In fact, a report by Premier Health Alliance found that technical interoperability within healthcare costs 150,000 lives and $18.6 billion per year.
Data hacks are also a growing industry concern with cybercriminals selling pilfered medical records on the dark web for big returns. Hospitals got a taste of the perilous side of the digital world when hackers earlier this year encrypted and held hostage electronic health records at Hollywood Presbyterian Health Center in Los Angeles, requesting a $17,000 bitcoin ransom.
While the core advantages of the blockchain have been well documented through hundreds of proof-of-concept projects, mainstream deployment is likely still far off. Smart contracts, personal identity, decentralized systems, and other protocols are still in an infancy stage of development. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives have not advanced into implementable solutions due to technical and regulatory challenges. Nevertheless, nodes of blockchain experimentation continue to take place giving rise to new possibilities for healthcare industry innovation.
Charting New Frontiers
Earlier this year, Philips which has been at the forefront of examining blockchain’s potential in healthcare launched the Philips Blockchain Lab, a research and development center located in Amsterdam. This lab involved six months of exploratory research, fostering collaboration among the company’s IT experts, health professionals, and blockchain developers to further advancements in this space.
Philips also entered into a partnership arrangement with blockchain startup Tierion exploring use cases of the technology in healthcare. What culminated from this was a report intended to quell some of the premature hype associated with blockchain technology in healthcare. Entitled 'Blockchain Healthcare 2016: Promise and Pitfalls,' this report offers a more balanced and inform perspective on themes like data integrity and security, standardization protocols and disruptive applications.
YouBase, a firm that is building a Personal Health Information Exchange Layer (PIXL) using blockchain technology is just one example of a company on the cutting edge of new developments in this space. In an interview with BTCManager, co-founder Josh Robinson describes the intent of this startup project:
“Our primary goal is to empower individuals to achieve ultimate control over their health data. We are taking the HD wallet idea and using that to break individual data into small pieces that are potentially useful on their own while being anonymized.”
During a stint at the health technology firm iTriage, Robinson began playing around with bitcoin and blockchain ideas. “I found myself captured by the technology, all of the cool, revolutionary things it could do, and began envisioning how it could be used to solve problems.” He later met his business partner Leonard Kish through the Denver Bitcoin community which led to him quitting his job the beginning of 2015 to focus his energies on blockchain/crypto work. “We believed that healthcare offered a problem that needed to be addressed and that the blockchain clearly offered a potential solution.”
YouBase according to Robinson has been targeting their efforts towards the realm of medical records. “This seemed like a logical place to start, the thought being that there is nothing more intimate than your personal health and the data around it.” He says that the most compelling challenge is figuring out how to best work with the existing system in terms of how individuals and institutions own and view data about people. “There are all of these hospitals and silos that own the data about us. So trying to shift that conversation has been very interesting and more of a challenge than I had expected.”
Says Peter Nichol, a healthcare business and technology expert with the PA Consulting Group and an outspoken supporter of blockchains future potential in healthcare:
“Revolutionary industry change takes time. Technology isn’t the limiter; it’s business process adoption. Railroads, automobiles, telegraphs, and genomic advancements all took decades for widespread acceptance. Today, we are witnessing a similar evolution with blockchain technology and the ability to impact health and wellness. The technology is here; it’s the business process integration we need to get right to solve EMR interoperability.”