Utilizing blockchain technology in healthcare

The interoperability of electronic health records (EHRs) has challenged healthcare systems for decades. Many believe that blockchain is an emerging solution to this major issue, but can its principles and functionality be easily integrated into our industry?

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A lack of accessibility

It’s a common occurrence that when a patient visits the clinic for a consultation, they may by seen by someone who is not their regular physician. Yet too often, that clinician cannot access the full medical history of the individual, despite them having been in the same healthcare system for decades. Doctors and patients alike are faced with the challenge of electronic health record (EHR) inaccessibility. This has the potential effect of installing a sense of doubt in patients and can mean that physicians are unaware of vital information such as allergies to medication and previous treatment recommendations. This can subsequently result in poor referral management to specialists, preventable hospital readmissions, and longer in-patient stays when hospitalized.1

Identification failures

Appallingly, mismatched patient EHRs is also a prevalent issue, as there remains no nationally recognized patient identifier.2 “Statistics show that up to one in five patient records are not accurately matched even within the same health care system” commented Director of Regenstrief Institute’s Center for Biomedical Informatics, Shaun Grannis. “As many as half of patient records are mismatched when data is transferred between healthcare systems.” Unsurprisingly, a misidentified patient can lead to serious clinical error and increases the likelihood of harming the individual.2,3 So how can healthcare systems counteract this problem in care? Improving access to EHRs within healthcare systems could help to ensure clinical and financial data interoperability of patient populations.1

What is blockchain, and can we utilize it in healthcare?

Blockchain has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation and debate in the technology space in recent years. Fundamentally, blockchain is a time-stamped collection of an immutable record of data that is handled by a series of computers, not owned by any single entity. Each of these individual pieces of data are then secured and associated with each other using cryptographic principles. Its decentralized, unalterable, transparent nature has led to its admiration within the technology field, after its first notable manifestation as the powering technology behind Bitcoin.2

If interoperability is such a critical issue in healthcare systems, could we integrate blockchain into EHRs to prevent information blocking and misidentification of patients? Blockchain could aid the creation of a patient information sharing marketplace, where individuals’ data are readily accessible and transferrable due to decentralization. “Most healthcare data are centralized at the level of a corporation, healthcare facility or government registry,” comments John Halamka, Chief Information Officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and Editor-in-Chief of ‘Blockchain in Healthcare Today’. “Blockchain is decentralized and therefore not impacted by the behavior of any one organization. In the future we might see blockchain as a component of a system in which patients serve as stewards of their own data, rather than relying on any central source”.4

Is blockchain the future of healthcare?

Some believe that in conjunction with artificial intelligence and machine learning, blockchain can be used to solve the challenges of EHR interoperability and promote the shift towards personalized medicine. By linking data types and using them to identify patterns across large quantities of data, blockchain could aid big data analytics to form insights on an individual basis, with the patient having complete control over their data.4

However, others remain cautious about its use and integration in healthcare, as a variety of technical factors present barriers to its adoption. Its slow pace, complexity, and the multiple steps required to collect and enter data thwart easy utilization in healthcare systems. Regulation, policy and legal challenges are similarly preventing uptake, and many believe that without policy changes at the highest level of government, the adoption of blockchain in healthcare will remain scarce.4

To discover more about the potential for big data analytics in healthcare, read our recent whitepaper, ‘Small steps towards big data’, and to stay informed on the latest in healthcare innovation, sign up for updates.

References

  1. Top Five Digital Health Technologies in 2019. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/reenitadas/2019/02/04/the-top-five-digital-health-technologies-in-2019/#89200696c0f9. Accessed: December 2019.
  2. Blockchain in healthcare: The Ultimate use case? Available at: https://blockgeeks.com/guides/blockchain-in-healthcare/. Accessed: December 2019.
  3. EHR intelligence. Top 5 Challenges to Achieving Healthcare Interoperability. Available at: https://ehrintelligence.com/news/top-5-challenges-to-achieving-healthcare-interoperability. Accessed: Decenber 2019.
  4. Forbes. Will Blockchain Transform Healthcare? Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ciocentral/2018/08/05/will-blockchain-transform-healthcare/#29f7cdff553d. Accessed: December 2019.

February 2020 RESP 41993

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