Blockchain’s Promise for the Future of Healthcare

In the winter of 2017, the world was captivated by the rise and fall of Bitcoin. Every night during its historic rise, local news ran rags-to-riches stories of basement investors who had cashed out at the right time. Every day, bloggers, tech journalists, and finance journalists tried to diagnose the market and divine what portents this fluctuation may hold for the future. Even before Bitcoin hit its fever pitch in December of 2017, the national conversation focused on the technology powering it – Blockchain. Intrigued by the success of Bitcoin, industry leaders sought to understand Blockchain’s structure, potential, and capabilities. Although the Bitcoin craze eventually came to an end, the conversation over Blockchain continues and it is now positioned to make inroads into the healthcare industry.

Blockchain, in its modern form, was created in the fallout of the 2008 financial crises. It is “[a] digital record or ledger [mini database] that is structured as a series of blocks that are strung together in a chain. Each block—a digital expression of a transaction or an event—is validated by multiple computers on the internet.” Blockchain is also highly secure by distributing “blockchains” to millions of computers, creating a decentralized database.

This combined ability to both secure and share files simultaneously makes Blockchain an attractive new frontier for the healthcare industry. Large healthcare providers such as Cigna, Aetna, and Sentara Health have signed onto Blockchain pilot programs; even Apple signaled interest in Blockchain applications. In 2018, 45% of the healthcare industry experimented with Blockchain applications and 11% of the industry deployed Blockchain applications for use in business. By 2025, it is projected that 55% “of healthcare applications will have adopted Blockchain for commercial deployment.”

This growing trend of Blockchain’s presence in healthcare is due to the enormous benefits the system presents. Cognizant’s 2017 report, “Healthcare: Blockchain’s Curative Potential for Healthcare Efficiency and Quality,” identifies top benefits that healthcare organizations could gain through its implementation, such as strengthened data security and improved interoperability. As Cognizant’s report states, “Blockchain technology enhances privacy through modern public key encryption techniques, reinforces data integrity with its properties of immutability, and improves security with its decentralized data model” allowing for improved patient care through data interoperability between different care providers. Deloitte’s 2018 global Blockchain survey also identifies areas where Blockchain will provide significant value, such as disintermediation, transparency and auditability, and industry collaboration.

These advantages present solutions to long-standing problems that have plagued the industry’s ability to modernize, specifically the ability to digitize patient records into Electronic Health Records. Blockchain’s decentralized data also provides a single authoritative source for patient records resulting in lower cost for patients, better collaboration between professionals, and increased efficiency for providers. Full realization of these benefits has the potential to revolutionize and modernize the healthcare industry and drastically increase the quality of care that patients receive.

Yet Blockchain’s real world implementation highlighted some operational hurdles. The Mayor’s office of Austin, Texas undertook a project called the “MyPass Initiative” to utilize Blockchain technology to improve the city’s homeless services by replacing paper records with “electronic encrypted records that would be more reliable and secure.” The initiative aims to “consolidate the identity and vital records of each homeless person in a safe and confidential way while providing a means for service providers to access that information.” Yet the program faces difficulties such as social buy-in and a reliable way to connect a person with an identity, which can hamper full implementation and in turn preclude the complete realization of the initiative’s benefits. These challenges are not insurmountable and overcoming them will pave the way for larger implementation of Blockchain technology in fields such as healthcare.

Blockchain’s utilization in healthcare is nowhere near complete, but its capabilities and potential operational effectiveness are becoming clear to industry leaders. Its promise to improve patient care through better interoperability, heightened data security, and lower cost is a benefit that the healthcare industry has long been looking to provide to patients. With growing industry engagement with Blockchain technologies and continued innovative pilot programs, such as Austin’s MyPass Initiative, we move ever closer to realizing Blockchain’s promise for the future of healthcare.