Does Blockchain hold the key to the distributed patient data dilemma?

By now most readers have probably heard of blockchain through tech blogs and major cover stories from the likes of The Economist over the past year. The financial sector has rapidly accelerated engagement with blockchain through a growing number of consortia and fintech startup initiatives. As the foundation for bitcoin, blockchain’s distributed, cryptographic ledger provides a novel data structure and capabilities that could offer a wide number of benefits beyond existing technologies over the coming decade.
The discourse on blockchain is exploding, as are the critiques. But many of us can’t help but feel that blockchain, in an ever evolving manner, is here to stay and is likely going to become the next layer of the internet that will dramatically improve security of data that is flowing in our transactional economy. Quite simply, we need blockchain’s cryptographic security and distributed data structure to deal with the wealth of data that is coming from the citizen-end of the spectrum.
Not least in the healthcare sector, where patient data is spread across an increasingly fragmented set of repositories. Healthcare’s interoperability challenge may only grow worse for the medium term as the growth of data from beyond the electronic health records (EHRs) due to wearables, smartphone apps and sensors in the home become more mainstream.
We see a number of bottlenecks arising out of this inability to integrate non-EHR data into records and become actionable intelligence for clinicians. This partially accounts for the lack of stickiness of most wearables as the data collected is locked in apps and fails to provide actionable feedback to those whom need it most.
A great deal of health data is locked in silos and under-utilized in both the diagnostic process and more broadly in medical research. Blockchain is one of several solutions that are only going to grow in importance, due to its distributed and traceable nature.
Meanwhile, healthcare is reaching an epic number of data security breaches over the past year including entire hospitals taken hostage by ransomware. With blockchain we may get a twofer by giving patients more control over whom they can share data with in clinical research, for example, while also maintaining higher levels of security.
Blockchain’s smart contract capabilities might also enable sharing economies for medical technology such as MRIs, expensive machinery that sometimes goes idle and could take advantage of the IoT and blockchain and enable new business models around scheduling and local options for consumers.
Blockchain has also recently been used to help fund novel HIV research. UBS, the bank, donated code to Finclusion Systems for a platform that will launch HealBond, a “smart bond” amounting to $10B deployed in a more efficient manner to fund research for HIV cures.
As healthcare slowly enters the API economy beyond siloed EHRs we may eventually see the post-EHR based on distributed databases and more patient-centric controls. Blockchain will likely play a major supporting role in this gradual transition that values data liquidity vs. data capture, patient-centric vs. vendor-centric solutions that we find in our current health IT ecosystem.
This will be good news for consumers and those interested in wellness, but this won’t happen overnight. We may also need to approach blockchain with the openness that typically hasn’t greeted “the new” in technology in the past. Play and experimentation will be needed to change entrenched ways.