Can Blockchain ‘transform’ healthcare? Simple answer: no.

We’d all love to see technology improve patient care, reduce diagnosis and therapy times and otherwise help us live longer, wouldn’t we? So could distributed ledger technology Blockchain hold the key? In a recent article on PoliticsHome, Member of Parliament John Mann highlighted a couple of areas where Blockchain might offer “transformative potential” to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS):

“By enabling ambulance workers, paramedics, and A&E staff instant access to medical records updated in real-time, medical care could be carefully targeted to a person’s specific needs. The ability to upload results of scans, blood samples and test results and have them accessed by the next practitioner near-instantly, without the risk of error offers the chance to improve survival rates in emergency care and improve care standards across our health service,” he wrote.

While the Rt. Hon. Mr Mann (or his advisors) may be correct in principle, he is falling into an age-old trap by issuing this kind of statement without caveat. While it is a powerful tool (as I noted in my 2018 predictions), it isn’t true that Blockchain enables anything, any more than a chisel enables a sculptor to sculpt. Sure, it could help, but it needs to be in the right hands and used in the right way.

Of course, some might say, this point should be taken as read. If that were the case however, we would not see repeated money being thrown at technology as a singular solution to otherwise insurmountable problems, in healthcare and beyond. And then failing to deliver, to general wailing and gnashing of teeth.

To continue the sculptor analogy, if the poor fellow is asked to deliver the thing in impossible timescales, designed by committee and with conflicting expectations of what it will look like, the result will probably be a mess. As sculpture, so technology, whatever the chisel manufacturers or IT vendors might have us think.

A massively complex organisation seemingly ruled (depending on who you ask) by metrics, efficiency, litigation prevention and so on will see such criteria impact any solution — either by design, or in consequence. I’m not critiquing the NHS here, just observing that IT will always take a subordinate role to its context. It’s the same in the US or any other country.

Perhaps Blockchain could help, but so could any number of technologies — if used in the right way. Indeed, you could take the above quote and inert it into any data management capability or service from the past four decades, or indeed, mobile, IoT and so on, and it would still make sense. Indeed, as healthcare writer Dan Munro notes on,

“The technical reality is that all of the features of a blockchain – except double spending – can easily be created with other tools that are readily available – and cheap – without actually being a “blockchain.” ”

While I’m well aware of both the many potential uses of blockchain in healthcare and the dangers of simply being one of “those armed with spears” (according to my old colleague and healthcare author Jody Ranck), the horse needs to be put before the cart: tech will not, by itself, solve any problems for anyone. This is more than a glib riposte to a quote taken out of context. For Blockchain to work in the way Mr Mann suggests, it would have to be rolled out widely, across a health service. Flagging up technologies is easy, but delivering transformation is astonishingly hard: our representatives need to understand, accept and design this in from the outset, for any “transformative potential” to be achieved.

(Jon was CTO of healthcare startup MedicalPath2Safety)