Blockchain technology is taking the world by storm. There are few industries left that are not currently being disrupted by the distributed ledger technology that underlies the cryptocurrency bitcoin. One crucial area that would benefit substantially from blockchain implementation is the recording of healthcare records.
The recording and sharing of patient health records with other health practitioners in its current state are done with outdated systems that do not provide adequate data security. Patient records are usually recorded in the individual’s healthcare provider’s system, which in many cases is not compatible with systems of other healthcare institutions, which makes the sharing of health records cumbersome and inefficient, and often involves paper copies being sent by mail. By building a healthcare data system on top of blockchain technology, instead, the recording and sharing of health records would be much easier, more efficient and substantially more secure.
How the Blockchain can Help Patients
Currently, there is no system accessible to the public that allows individuals to update their health records. To record any developments during an illness or accidents, a patient needs to reach out to his or her doctor who then records the new data in the patient’s health records. If instead, each patient can update his or her health records, which, in turn, doctors can access, it would make the entire process much more efficient, improve the patient-doctor relationship and make diagnosis easier.
Researchers at MIT are currently developing such a system, which they have named MedRec. MedRec is built on top of the Ethereum blockchain and aims to record and store medical records with the added feature of allowing patients, as well as doctors, third-party healthcare providers and even the patient’s relatives permissioned access to the patient’s medical records.
According to the white paper published by MIT researchers Ariel Ekblaw, Asaf Azaria, John D. Halamka, and Andrew Lippman, MedRec:
"gives patients a comprehensive, immutable log and easy access to their medical information across providers and treatment sites. Leveraging unique blockchain properties, MedRec manages authentication, confidentiality, accountability and data sharing - crucial considerations when handling sensitive information."
How the Blockchain can Help Doctors
According to the Premier Healthcare Alliance, the lack of interoperability of healthcare systems costs 150,000 lives and $18.6 billion each year. If doctors would be able to gain immediate access to a patient’s entire medical history, instead of having to go over it with every new patient during their first visit, a diagnosis of the patient’s ailments could be made much quicker potentially saving the patient's life in severe cases. These realized efficiency gains is a huge argument for implementing sector-wide compatible systems built on distributed ledger technology.
Preventing Ransomware Attacks
Storing data on the blockchain allows designated users, which in this case would be patients, doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers, to view and share health records in a secure manner. Due to the immutable decentralized nature of the blockchain, unwanted third party access would be impossible adding much-needed data security to the healthcare space. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are frequented ransomware targets for cyber criminals as current systems are easily penetrable for hackers. Also, healthcare professionals need fast access to patient data. Hence, hospitals are willing to pay the ransom instead of spending the time and money to regain access to its data.
Therefore, a new system built on a secure technology would be a much-needed improvement in the healthcare space.
Blockchain Startups Building Healthcare Systems
There are currently several startups working on blockchain solutions for the healthcare space. Two leading startups in the field are California-based Gem and Connecticut-based Tierion.
Gem has developed an Ethereum blockchain-enabled platform, called Gem Health Network, which uses multi-signature and multi-factor authentication technology to build a secure universal healthcare database. Tierion develops data storage solutions using distributed ledger technology, and one of their first projects has been a collaboration with Philips for the healthcare space.
Estonia Leverages the Blockchain for one Million e-Health Records
Estonia, the European country that has become the poster child for technological innovation, is already implementing a key aspect of blockchain technology to store its citizens’ healthcare data in a more secure manner. The Estonian e-health Foundation partnered up with cyber security startup GuardTime in 2016 to record over one million patient e-health records.
Guardtime has developed a Keyless Signature Infrastructure (KSI), which is a blockchain-based data authentication system that does not require the trust of centralized authorities. Instead, KSI uses hash-function cryptography, which allows data verification to rely solely on the security of hash functions and a public ledger.
Using Guardtime’s cyber security system to secure its citizens’ e-health records stored on its Oracle database, Estonia is taking another step closer to fully digitizing all of its public services. Estonian citizens already have electronic IDs that can be used to access a broad range of government services.
Challenges of the Blockchain in Healthcare
The reality is that a secure distributed ledger of patient medical data that can be accessed by doctors, hospitals, third-party healthcare providers and patients themselves would be hugely beneficial to all sides. In some cases, having all patient data immediately accessible by the relevant parties could even save lives. However, it is still a long path to “healthcare on the blockchain.”
For one unified medical records system to be used by the majority of healthcare providers in a country, there needs to be government backing. In a country, likes the United States for example, where a substantial part of the healthcare sector is made up of private companies it will be hard to convince healthcare providers to switch from the current to new systems as changing IT systems always involve costs. Hence, a government initiative in this area, as witnessed in Estonia, would be needed to build a national medical records system that all healthcare sector participants can access.